By Sharon Terlep
Retail chains from CVS to 7-Eleven are being forced to decide whether and how to enforce rules on masks after a string of attacks on clerks and security guards by patrons who refused to cover their faces.
As more cities, states and businesses require customers to cover up in stores, face coverings have become a flashpoint in the debate over how to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Some opponents of forced shutdowns and social-distancing requirements are flouting mask mandates, leaving grocers, drugstore chains and big-box retailers to weigh public-health requirements against the risk of putting their workers in harm's way.
This month's fatal shooting of a security guard in Flint, Mich., following a face-mask dispute with a customer is the most extreme case of violence around the issue, but it isn't an isolated incident. Assaults on store personnel have been reported at retailers across the country, from a Target in Southern California to a 7-Eleven convenience store in northern Indiana.
"It gets pretty confrontational. People are getting in our faces and are really angry with our managers and employees when it's not our rule," said Shaunte Wisch-Thompson, who works at a Kroger in Streator, Ill., a small town about 100 miles southwest of Chicago.
An executive order by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker mandates masks in public when people can't maintain distance from one another. Ms. Wisch-Thompson said one man refused her request that he don a mask, saying he didn't vote for the governor. She said she tries to reason with shoppers but doesn't force the issue. "It's not my job to enforce masks -- I'm not a manager."
Retailers are taking varied approaches. Some chains have advised workers to let mask-less customers in despite state and local laws, while others are drawing a harder line on site or directing workers to call local law enforcement if a shopper breaks the rule.
Costco Wholesale Corp. faced angry critics and a boycott after the warehouse retail chain said earlier this month that all customers must wear a mask, whether or not one is required by local governments. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone more than 2 years of age wear cloth face coverings in public places, such as stores, where social distancing is difficult.
"There are strong feelings on both sides. We do the best we can in making the right decision," Costco finance chief Richard Galanti said. "If it's the right decision, we help reduce the spread of this terrible virus. If it's the wrong decision, it's a relatively small inconvenience."
Not enforcing face-mask rules also comes with risks, and not just to the health of workers and patrons. A CVS pharmacy in Fresno, Calif., was put on notice by local code enforcers who, in responding to a complaint earlier this month, found an unmasked shopper inside the drugstore.
"It's up to the business to decide how best to get the customer out," said Mark Standriff, communications director for the city of Fresno, which mandates that businesses require customers to wear masks inside stores. Especially in a drugstore, frequented by the sick and elderly, keeping faces covered is critical, Mr. Standriff said. "This is just like having to deal with any unruly customer."
But CVS Health Corp., in a policy mirrored by competitors Walgreens Boots Alliance Co. and Rite Aid Corp., has told its workers not to refuse service to noncompliant patrons.
In cities and states where masks are required, CVS puts up signs reminding customers of the rule, a spokesman said. Store managers are told to refer to the signage if a shopper comes in without a mask.
If the customer refuses, "our priority is to help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible and provide them with information about other options we have available for their future needs," the spokesman said.
The company, he said, takes that approach to avoid potentially contentious or violent interactions between employees and customers. "It strikes the proper balance between complying with local requirements while also protecting employees who are on the front lines," he said, adding that the chain has experienced few incidents.
Rite Aid and Walgrees also said they direct employees to avoid confrontations with customers.
Target Corp. requires face masks in places where there are local or state mandates, a spokesman said. The company added funding to supplement staffing or to hire off-duty police officers to enforce rules at store entrances. Workers may call local law enforcement in cases where masks are required and a customer refuses to comply, the spokesman said.
Retailers say conflict is rare, and people generally comply without incident. Flare-ups, however, happen.
The shooting in Flint at a Family Dollar occurred May 1 after a security guard confronted a woman entering the store with her daughter. The woman was wearing a mask, but the daughter, in her 20s, wasn't, according to the local prosecutor.
The woman yelled and spit at the guard, who ordered the woman to leave the store and told a cashier not to serve her, according to the prosecutor's office. The woman drove home and returned with her husband and her son, who shot the guard in the back of the head following a confrontation, the prosecutor said.
Family Dollar parent Dollar Tree Inc. directs stores to ensure customers are wearing masks in places where local authorities require them, a Dollar Tree spokesman said. He declined to provide the company's protocol for enforcing those rules. "We are going to comply where they are required," he said, as was the case in Michigan.
Less than two weeks later, a security guard at a Target in Van Nuys, Calif., suffered a broken arm in a physical confrontation with two men who refused to wear masks in the store.
In St. Clair Shores, Mich., a woman was charged after allegedly assaulting a grocery store employee and spitting on police officers after being told to leave because she wasn't wearing a mask.
Police in Mishawaka, Ind., are investigating an incident this week in which a male patron of a 7-Eleven threw a cup of coffee at a clerk who refused to serve him because he wasn't wearing a mask. The man left and then returned. When the clerk again asked him to leave, he knocked her to the ground and punched and kicked her before leaving again, police said.
Even the strictest face-mask mandates generally make allowances, in line with CDC guidelines, for people with health issues that could make it difficult for them to breathe in a mask or to put on or remove a covering.
Determining that need presents another potential complication for retailers.
"We are not in a position to decide who does and does not fall into this category in our stores," said a spokeswoman for Hy-Vee Inc., a Midwest chain of more than 240 supermarkets.
--Jaewon Kang contributed to this article.
Write to Sharon Terlep at email@example.com