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How Target, Meijer, grocery store workers enforce mask policies



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INDIANAPOLIS – Miranda Pfoutz has had Meijer shoppers tell her they won’t wear a mask because they can’t breathe.

She was told by one man that a mask covering his mouth, but not his nose, was the best he could do. She’s heard conspiracy theories and seen shoppers get angry when asked to wear a mask.

Although Pfoutz, a cashier and service coordinator at a  Meijer in Plainfield, asks customers who come through her line to wear a face mask, sometimes shoppers refuse.

“I had a lady get really angry today when I asked her to put a mask on and she just left and went to self-scan,” Pfoutz said. “I feel strongly that people should wear masks. And a lot of cashiers won’t say anything — I will. I don’t want them coming through my line if they’re not willing to wear a mask.”

The task of enforcing face mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has largely fallen to retail and service industry employees, including those in grocery stores.

Asking customers to abide by mask requirements is just part of the job.

The use of face coverings is standard practice in preventing the spread of disease, and widespread studies have shown wearing them can reduce COVID-19 transmission. In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called on Americans to wear face coverings to protect themselves against the virus. 

‘You can breathe in’: Health officials take on rumors about mask safety ahead of mandate

National retailers — including Target, Meijer, Walmart, Kroger and a slew of others — began requiring shoppers to wear masks to keep customers and employees safe.

Masks are also required in indoor public spaces and outdoors when social distancing by local and state governments. Marion County’s mask requirement went into effect on July 9 and Indiana’s began on July 22.

Despite these mandates, Pfoutz said between 10-20 shoppers each day will shop in her store without a face covering.

“I would prefer not to have to (ask people to wear masks), but I’m willing to because I look at it as protecting myself, protecting everybody I come into contact with, my kids, and the other customers,” Pfoutz said.

‘Do you want paper or plastic? Do you have a mask?’

“Oh, hey, don’t forget your mask today,” Jordan, a Guest Advocate who asked that his last name and exact store location not be used for fear of reprisals, will remind Target shoppers.

As someone who often works near the front door, Jordan said he’s usually the one to have the tough conversation with customers.

“We’re pretty lucky, not a huge percentage of guests come in without a mask on. Certainly less than 10%,” Jordan said. “But when you get a guest that you have to devote time to because of it, like all of a sudden it becomes a pretty time-consuming thing.”

Target began requiring customers to wear face coverings in all stores on Aug. 1 and is reminding shoppers of this rule through signs, overhead audio messages and reminders from team members. The store also will provide disposable masks to guests who don’t have them.

“This builds on the more than 80% of our stores that already require guests to wear face coverings due to local and state regulations,” according to an emailed statement from Target.

Myra Carleton, a front-end cashier at Fresh Thyme in Indianapolis, said she has no problem asking guests to put a mask on.

When the Marion County requirements went into effect, the store’s employees began taking turns manning the door, switching every hour to ensure customers wore masks and to grab a store manager when someone refused to do so.

It’s a position Carleton and her co-workers call the gatekeeper “because it makes it more fun.”

“It’s just a simple conversation of, ‘Do you have one? Do you need one? Can you go get one?’ And if not, then, ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to leave,’ and if they don’t want to, then that’s when the key manager comes in,” Carleton said. “I was never nervous about it, it was just another instinct, like ‘Do you want paper or plastic?’ ‘Do you have a mask?'”

Fresh Thyme’s face mask requirement for all of its stores began on July 20.

Meijer, Target and Fresh Thyme  all provide exceptions to those with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing face masks. They’re also all encouraging alternative methods of shopping for those who prefer not to enter stores, like delivery services and curbside pickup.

Fresh Thyme said in an emailed statement that signs and store leaders stationed near entrances are helping to communicate the rule.

“All customers are informed of the requirement and asked to wear a mask,” Fresh Thyme wrote to the IndyStar. “Customers with a medical condition which does not allow for them to wear a mask are exempt. We are using this as an opportunity to ask all of our customers to work together to keep our stores safe and healthy, and we hope to encourage all to comply.”

Carleton said she thinks it’s best when that conversation can come from a store employee rather than another customer.

“I’ve seen short little spats,” she said. “While it’s still our responsibility as citizens to be like, ‘Hey, you should be safe,’ I think it’s much better when it comes from that extra little step of authority.”

‘Incredibly confrontational’

But employee training for this task varies.

Although most Target shoppers Jordan encounters abide by the face mask requirement, those who don’t are “incredibly confrontational.”

Jordan said he told his boss he didn’t feel properly equipped to handle those conversations.

“I was pretty much told, ‘Well, here’s your 30-second coaching on being equipped,'” he said. “I don’t even know how many team members have gotten the 30 seconds.”

Jordan said he feels he and his co-workers haven’t gotten the support they need.

Target did not respond to requests for information and materials on employee training for enforcing mask rules.

“It’s sort of like being thrown in a pool without a life jacket and just being told, like, ‘You know how to swim, right?'” Jordan said. “It’s like, yeah, I can figure it out I guess, but it would have been cool if you told me before you threw me into the deep end.”

Pfoutz said she hasn’t received any guidance for talking with Meijer customers about mask use.

Like Fresh Thyme, Meijer’s customer mask requirements across its stores went into effect on July 20.

Meijer did not respond to email and phone call requests for information and materials related to its training process.

For Carleton, it’s been a different experience.

She said she and her co-workers were given a packet of information about de-escalation tactics, how to work with guests and a list of reasons someone would be able to shop without a mask. She said one of the store’s key managers also explained the information verbally and answered questions.

Fresh Thyme declined to share its internal training materials with IndyStar. 

“De-escalation is always our first goal,” she said. “Whatever the problem is, try and de-escalate it and make sure everyone knows the rules and is safe.”

‘We do it because it’s important’

In retail stores and grocery stores, where there’s high face-to-face interaction, employees feel differently about their safety levels, especially when face masks aren’t always a given.

Although a majority of customers follow the mask requirement, Pfoutz said she doesn’t feel safe working at her store.

“We’ve just had a number of customers get angry enough that it’s scary,” she said. “It does tell me they don’t care whether I live or die. They don’t care if my kids live or die.”

Jordan said although he feels unprepared for the conversations he’s expected to have with shoppers, he does feel safe going to work every day. He pointed to Target’s provided masks and gloves for employees and the option for no-penalty leaves of absence.

“I feel like, for the most part, they’ve done their best, the big shortcoming is just in the actual mask enforcement and how we’ve been equipped to handle it,” Jordan said.

It’s a duty these employees don’t take lightly.

“I think we all kind of feel like it’s our responsibility in a small part to just be aware and mindful of the customers that are in our store as we always are,” Carleton said. “It’s a small part, but it still feels important.”

All three employees said a majority of customers wear face masks during their entire shopping trip, but when customers don’t, it’s frustrating.

“You put a jacket on when it’s cold, you put a seatbelt on when you’re driving, you could put a mask on for however long you plan on being in the store,” Carleton said. “I would love for customers to realize that you’re wearing it for a half hour. I’m wearing it for eight hours. And I’m okay with it because I’m safe and I’m healthy and it’s the easiest thing I can do.

“You’re tired of it and we are too, but we do it because it’s important to do it.”

Follow Madison O’Connor on Twitter @madisonoconn.

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