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Workers worry as businesses face enforcement of statewide mask mandate

Wearing a mask for protection against the coronavirus, Henry Powell, puts his groceries in his car after shopping at a Safeway store in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Rich Pedroncelli
/
The Associated Press (file)
Wearing a mask for protection against the coronavirus, Henry Powell, puts his groceries in his car after shopping at a Safeway store in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 19, 2020.

No mask, no service. That’s the new mantra as of Tuesday, when Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest order meant to thwart the spread of COVID-19 takes effect. It requires businesses statewide to enforce the mask mandate or risk big fines. 

The order comes in response to the resurgence in cases in numerous counties. The statewide mandate is based on one that took effect about a week ago in Yakima County.

But many front-line workers still aren’t sure how it will pan out.

“I think it’s good. But we haven’t been given any new direction on what to do, when someone doesn’t have a mask on,” said Sue Wilmott, a checker who has worked for more than 20 years as a checker at Safeway on Bainbridge Island. She’s also a shop steward with her union, UFCW-21.

She says new signs went up on the front doors after the governor’s statewide mask mandate took effect on June 26. They contain reminders that nearly everyone is now required to wear masks in public places. But many people still don’t. Wilmott says her colleagues have been asking her how to handle the new rule. 

“As the workers, we don’t want to be the ones who are enforcing it, because that puts us in a harsh position,” she said. “But I don’t think the management wants to have to pay security to patrol the front door.” Wilmott added that management recently cut workers' hazard pay, an extra $2 per hour meant to offset the risk of working on the front lines with daily exposure to hundreds of potentially infectious customers.

Holly Chisa — spokeswoman with the Northwest Grocery Association, whose members include big chains such as Costco, Safeway and Fred Meyer — said late as of late Monday she still had not received a final document from the governor’s office, indicating exactly how the new mask order will be enforced. She said businesses are looking to Yakima County for pointers and that there, most retailers posted signs and trained staff on how to talk to customers who try to enter stores without masks.

But Chisa says what’s most needed now is cooperation from the public, because guarding all the doors isn’t practical; many stores have three or more entrances. 

“So, that’s three staff people that are pulled off of the regular work of a grocery store on a busy weekend, now, having to do this kind of policy work,” she said. “It's important for customers to remember, however, that while they may not receive a charge or a penalty from the state, retailers will receive a $10,000 fine from Labor and Industries if our store sites are found not to be in compliance."   

Chisa says one tactic that has helped in Yakima is the provision of free masks from local emergency management and other sources, so that retailers can offer them at the door to people who forget to bring their own.

Wilmott, the Safeway checker, says she’s appreciative of people who do wear their masks when they come out shopping.

“Because they recognize our added vulnerability and risk — being a front-line grocery checker. And they respect us for that,” she said.  

And at this point, if someone refuses, she says she’ll probably call a manager and walk away.

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