How Do You Require Customers to Wear Masks Without Endangering Employees?

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. August 4, 2020
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masked grocery store customer reaching for food

​Employers that ask customers to wear face masks walk a fine line between complying with mask mandates and putting employees at risk if customers refuse and respond violently. Businesses are training employees to de-escalate these potentially tense encounters.

Violent Reactions

Lily Damtew, owner of Abyssinia Market & Coffee House in Alexandria, Va., knows firsthand about hostile reactions to requests that customers wear masks. When she asked a patron to wear a mask after he walked past signs posted in her business stating masks were required, he got upset and said they aren't required in Virginia nor Alexandria. Damtew responded that they are and that he needed to wear a mask. He started name-calling, but she reiterated that if he didn't wear a mask, she wouldn't serve him.

Damtew then offered him a mask, which he used to cover an eye and asked if that was better. She then told him that even if he put the mask on properly, she wouldn't serve him because he was scaring her. She then opened the shop door and asked him to leave. He called her vulgar names, spat on her feet and left.

She called 911, told the dispatcher what happened and locked the door. The customer later returned and threw food on the shop's door, window and outside table. The police apprehended him, but he was not charged, she said. Instead, she said, he was sent for a mental evaluation and treatment.

The incident left Damtew "terrified," she said. It happened July 5, just the second day her business was open after being closed for four months. She shut her business down again for another week.

Since Damtew has reopened her shop, there has been an outpouring of support from the community. "It gives you hope. I get flowers. I get cards. It's amazing," she said.

She remains firm and says that if customers don't wear masks, she will refuse them service.

Other customers refusing to wear masks have reacted more violently. In New Orleans, a man who was asked to wear a mask at a grocery store allegedly left the store, got a gun from his vehicle and opened fire at store employees, Newsweek reported. There were no injuries.

But Calvin Munerlyn, a security guard at a Family Dollar in Flint, Mich., was killed in May after turning a customer away for trying to enter the store without a mask, USA Today reported.

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Different Approaches

Retailers are taking different approaches to alert customers about mask-wearing requirements. Walmart has created the role of "health ambassador" and will station these individuals at entrances to remind customers of mask requirements. "Our ambassadors will receive special training to help make the process as smooth as possible for customers," Walmart said in a statement.

But home-improvement retailer Lowe's won't enforce its new mask mandate, citing concerns about its associates' safety, The Charlotte Observer reported. Lowe's declined to comment to SHRM Online.

[Need help with legal questions? Check out the new SHRM LegalNetwork.]

Tips for Employees

While employee safety matters, so does the health of the public, who are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 if others don't wear masks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC stated July 14 that the percentage of adults who follow the recommendations to wear a face mask outside the home rose from 62 percent in April to 76 percent in May.

Robert LaCommare, vice president of asset protection for Big Lots Stores, said in a video interview with Lisa LaBruno, Retail Industry Leaders Association's senior executive vice president of retail operations and innovation, that there have been multiple arguments over face masks in Big Lots stores. Associates are provided with "de-escalation scripts" that include such strategies as offering customers curbside service or masks, or checking out a customer's purchases at a register that is separate from others, he said.

"While cases of violence are certainly the exception, we have all seen the YouTube videos of customers behaving badly," LaBruno told SHRM Online.

"An employer should make clear that employees are not expected to enforce face-covering requirements and that their role should be limited to requesting and/or encouraging compliance with the business's policy," said Michele Ballard Miller and Bethany Vasquez, attorneys with Cozen O'Connor in San Francisco. "Emphasis should be placed on de-escalating the situation."

They said employees should report to their managers or security if a situation escalates. "Management should be responsive and take employees' concerns seriously," they said. "If employees feel like they are not being given enough support by their company in responding to disgruntled persons, it could cause employees to quit and possibly to file a claim for a hostile or unsafe work environment."

Update workplace-violence policies to cover nonemployee violence, and make employees aware of the company's procedure for reporting customer threats and aggression, they recommended.

Legal Requirements

Most states and many localities require people to cover their faces when in public.

"In some communities, local governments are penalizing business that fail to enforce the face-mask requirement," said Chase Hattaway, an attorney with RumbergerKirk in Orlando.

Be sure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as some people with disabilities can't wear face masks, cautioned Katie Erno, an attorney with Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C.

One reasonable accommodation might be curbside pickup, said Michael DeLarco, an attorney with Hogan Lovells in New York City. The accommodation offered does not need to be the customer's choice, he said.

"Businesses generally have the right to refuse service to anyone, so long as it is not done in a discriminatory manner," said Michael E. Brewer and Joseph Deng, attorneys with Baker McKenzie in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.

Miller and Vasquez stated that employees can be instructed to treat the face-covering requirement much like they would treat requirements for shirts and shoes. "No face covering, no shirt, no shoes, no service."

[How have you adapted to the pandemic? Share your story with SHRM's Government Affairs Team as they educate decision-makers on crafting policies on work, workers and the workplace.]

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