We have previously described and lamented the politicization of face masks, our single greatest weapon against coronavirus this side of a vaccine, but, as coronavirus numbers reach previously unfathomable peaks seemingly every day, we have to talk about them again.
Over the last week, the nation’s leading retailers have started to take a firmer stand about in-store mask policies, inviting praise from most and anger from some. Absent a national government mandate, however, retailers find themselves in a precarious position when it comes to enforcement. How are frontline retail employees to enforce corporate directives on a day-to-day basis, particularly when facing the vitriol and violence already plaguing retail establishments enforcing mask policies?
This is a serious and necessary question without an easy answer, and it is one that undeniably requires health and safety market research as companies navigate a complex minefield of political identities and public health realities.
So, let’s survey that minefield, looking at the current guidance regarding masks, retailers’ efforts to implement and enforce in-store policies, and the brewing rebellion among the nation’s leading retailers as they beg for federal support.
If You Aren’t Wearing A Mask, You Must Be Wearing a Blindfold
As of today, 143, 000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Sometimes numbers are a bit abstract--you can hear 140,000 deaths and it just sounds like a number. But it is the equivalent of over forty-six 9/11s, and 2.5 times the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. Something has to change and it is becoming increasingly clear that masks are our single best option right now.
We should recall that there has been some contradictions among health experts about masks’ efficacy and necessity, particularly in the earliest days of the pandemic when single-use masks were in short supply and needed to be reserved for healthcare professionals. In March and early April, scientists, physicians, and government agencies were all still up in the air about it. But that is no longer the case.
So, why the reversal? Science, that’s why. Since March, the world has been a coronavirus testing ground and experts now agree that earlier guidance was incorrect. For a breakdown of the change and the reasons behind it, head here.
Today, the consensus surrounding the efficacy of face masks is so strong that the Wall Street Journal ran a lede that did not mince words: “Face masks are emerging as one of the most powerful weapons to fight the novel coronavirus, with growing evidence that facial coverings help prevent transmission—even if an infected wearer is in close contact with others.”
The CDC, which, in case anybody forgot, is the nation’s leading authority on communicable diseases, has also issued clear guidance that everyone "should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public.”
How much can masks help? Well, if 95% of the nation wore masks in public, the expected national death toll would drop by over 40,000, which would bring the pandemic under control. Unfortunately, we are well below that threshold currently, with about 75% of Americans complying with health and safety best practices.
But people seem to be coming around, though some a little later than we would have liked. But now is not the time to be a hipster (“I was wearing masks before they were cool!”), it is a time to unconditionally accept any volunteer into the mask-wearing population, no matter how circuitous of a route they took to get here.
Health and Safety Market Research: Retailers’ In-Store Mask Policies
And retailers by and large seem to have gotten there.
Whether it is civic duty or capitalist imperative, the list of retailers requiring face masks to enter their brick & mortar locations is continuing to grow--just this week, Walmart, with its 4,800 stores across the country, joined the ranks. Of the new policy, Walmart’s CEO Dacona Smith and Sam Club’s CEO Lance De La Rosa said in a joint blog post, “To help bring consistency across stores and clubs, we will require all shoppers to wear a face covering starting Monday, July 20. This will give us time to inform customers and members of the changes, post signage and train associates on the new protocols."
Walmart joins other retailers instituting mask requirements this week including CVS, Kohl’s, and Lowe’s. By the time this blog publishes, Shaw’s and Home Depot will also have instituted a mask requirement, and Aldi and Target plan to roll out similar protocols next week. Of course, places like Apple, Best Buy, and Costco have had similar policies in place for some time now. For a complete list of retailers now requiring customers wear face masks, head here.
Health and Safety Market Research II: Retailers’ Enforcement Problem
But policy is one thing. There is also the issue of enforcement--sure, you can ask or even require customers to wear masks, but as the last month of horror stories has taught us, there is simply no way to ensure customers comply, and anti-maskers can get pretty darn confrontational.
For its part, Walmart plans on posting black-polo-shirt-clad “health ambassadors” at the door to remind people to mask up. But what happens when friendly reminders are met with caustic refusals? Other retailers like Home Depot and Target plan to provide complementary masks for anybody who comes to the store without one, but, again, short of repurposing out-of-work nightclub bouncers to throw out the maskless, how will they make them wear them?
Other retailers are taking a more passive approach, with Kroger and CVS planning to use signs and store announcements to remind customers about the policy, and many, whatever their enforcement plan, are also encouraging customers to shop through curbside pickup if they prefer to not wear a mask.
It’s a fine line to walk--nobody wants to see one of their store associates in a viral video putting hands on a customer or arbitrarily enforcing policies. But more pressingly, charging a minimum-wage employee likely in their late teens or early twenties with approaching adult customers and enforcing a corporate policy mired in antipathy, well, that seems like a tough proposition.
CVS Health’s CEO’s recent statement shows how untenable a position this has become, “To be clear, we’re not asking our store employees to play the role of enforcer. What we are asking is that customers help protect themselves and those around them by listening to the experts and heeding the call to wear a face covering.”
But they have to do something. In a recent survey by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, roughly seven out of ten grocery workers believe their employers do not enforce. And, as the union’s president so concisely noted, “The key issue here is that a mandate is meaningless — meaningless — without enforcement.”
Honestly, the only way out of this mess for retailers is with a firm national policy requiring masks, something that could buttress store policies and take the teeth out of any opposition. Obviously, this has not happened.
Until then, retailers must develop a clear, well-considered policy that focuses as much on enforcement as policy, something that is only possible with health and safety market research. Without it, retailers risk endangering and alienating both their employees and customers.
Retail Market Research: Retailers Want Clear National Policies, Now
It is this reality that led the National Retail Federation, the industry’s main lobbying arm, to say enough is enough and publish an open letter calling for a clear national mask mandate. Signed by CEOs from dozens of Fortune 500 retailers (including Best buy, Dollar Tree, Nordstrom, LL Bean, and Petsmart), the letter is worth quoting at length:
“Unfortunately, many of these workers have recently endured verbal threats, harassment, and in some cases, physical violence for attempting to promote a safer environment for themselves and customers...In mandating the use of masks in public settings, the role of enforcement should not fall upon our employees, team members and associates. Requiring retail employees to serve as de facto law enforcement could lead to an unsafe environment for our employees and customers. All retailers will do our part to clearly communicate such policies to our employees and the public, but it must be the role of government to properly enforce this important safety initiative, and it must be the responsibility of every individual to follow the law.”
The Health and Safety Market Research Tool Box
Melanie Ott, the director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology, says wearing a mask is “one of the most urgent things we can do to get our country under control. We’re all waiting for the vaccine, we’re waiting for therapeutics, and we’re not there. We have masks, we have social distancing, and we have testing. But there’s not much more in the toolbox here.”
For retailers, the toolbox already feels bare in so many ways. Next week, we will consider the market research tools at their disposal, which will have to do until the federal hammer comes into play.