Stores need to hire security guards and give management the go-ahead to crack down on shoppers who refuse to wear masks, the head of a union that represents retail workers said Wednesday.
The call by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) came after a series of sometimes violent incidents in which cashiers, stock clerks and even customers found themselves pitted against people who refused to abide by stores’ mask policies, which are aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
Many store owners have “abdicated their responsibility” and left it up to rank-and-file workers to enforce these policies, Appelbaum said.
“It’s not the job of the employees to enforce the store rules on face masks,” Appelbaum told NBC News. “It’s the employers’ responsibility to tell people to leave the store if they are not wearing face masks.”
Big retailers routinely enforce prohibitions against entering stores without shoes or shirts, he said. And with the national death toll from COVID-19 now over 151,000, there’s no reason why store operators shouldn’t do the same with masks, he said.
“If they say they have a face mask policy and don’t enforce it, then they don’t have a face mask policy,” said Appelbaum, who noted that under their contracts, workers at Bloomingdales and Macy’s in New York are not required to serve customers who aren’t wearing masks.
“Retail workers have public-facing jobs,” he added. “They’re going to be in contact with hundreds of people every day. And some places, people may be in contact with more than a thousand people a day.”
Why aren’t stores doing more to enforce the mask-wearing rule?
“I think that some employers are afraid of alienating customers,” Appelbaum said. “They don’t want to lose business. And so they don’t enforce it. I also think some employers know that unfortunately, wearing a mask has become politicized and they want to stay out of that debate. It’s wrong. They need to enforce the rules.”
Two New York City men were arrested this week for assaulting workers at a Trader Joe’s in Manhattan who tried to enforce the company’s mask-wearing policy.
Also this week, a Florida man who was shopping at a Walmart in Palm Beach County while not wearing a mask was arrested for pulling a gun on another man who demanded to know why he wasn’t following the store’s rules.
In another incident, a Walmart in Minnesota was thrown into an uproar when two shoppers insisted on wearing masks bearing Nazi swastikas.
And in what’s perhaps the best known example of store workers having to lay down the law, another Florida man was caught on video pushing and shoving Walmart workers in Orlando after he was told he could not enter the store without a mask.
Walmart’s policy requiring all workers and customers to wear masks inside the retail giant’s stores went into effect on July 20. And most stores around the country are following federal guidelines and have similar rules in place.
But while the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends face coverings be worn in stores and other public places to help prevent the spread of the virus, the U.S. government has balked thus far at issuing a blanket requirement to wear masks, leaving the decision on masks to state, county and sometimes municipal governments.
While some of those mandates carry threats of fines and jail time for people who flout mask-wearing requirements, experts say they lack “teeth” and are next-to-impossible to enforce.
President Donald Trump helped politicize the issue by refusing — until very recently — to wear a mask in public. Many of his most ardent supporters followed his lead, often claiming that a mask-wearing mandate was a violation of their rights.
Some of those mask refuseniks are now paying a price.
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, an arch-conservative Republican who has rarely been seen wearing a mask on Capitol Hill, tested positive Wednesday for the coronavirus just before he and Trump were supposed to fly down together to Texas.
In other Covid-19-related developments:
- California passed Massachusetts on Tuesday as the state with the third largest number of coronavirus deaths with 8,722, an NBC News tally showed. New York and New Jersey, which were hit hard in March and April and have since been able to flatten the curve, are still ranked one and two in the number of COVID-19 fatalities. But states like Florida and Texas, which followed Trump’s calls to reopen early and relax quarantine rules, have faced an explosion in the number of coronavirus deaths in recent weeks. Each state now has more than 6,000 reported deaths.