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U.S. retailers badly want shoppers to wear masks. Getting them to comply is another story

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As coronavirus infections spread across the nation, Walmart, Target and other major U.S. retailers have started requiring customers to don face masks in their stores. Now for the hard part: Getting shoppers to cooperate.

Many Americans continue to resist wearing masks despite the scientific consensus that the practice saves lives — a fact borne out by the more than 90 grocery workers that have died from COVID-19 after being infected on the job, according to data from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Already, that resistance is causing some merchants to backtrack.

Discount chains Dollar Tree and Family Dollar have reversed policies mandating masks in their stores, among other companies easing back. And hardware giant Lowe's this week said it wouldn't enforce its own facial covering policy only days after implementing it. 

Some retailers also express concern that asking workers to enforce mask requirements could put them at risk, citing violent incidents at stores. Enforcing masks requirements should be up to "trained professionals, not retail workers already stretched thin during this crisis," according to Marc Perrone, international president of the UFCW.

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What would help defuse such tensions, as well as curb the virus? More direction from Washington, for starters, some experts think. A federal order to wear masks in stores would likely help to "protect the safety of retail workers and to stem the pandemic," said David Michaels, a professor of public health at George Washington University and head of the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration.

"If people know it's the law, the onus is less on the establishment and more on the police, and the message is put out to the public that they are breaking the law" by refusing to wear a face mask, he added.

"Customers can turn aggressive"

Retailers can hire security guards or call law enforcement to deal with mask-averse customers, although in states without mandates the latter might not help. For now, "It's up to the stores to enforce those requirements, and retail employees can't be expected to do that safely," Michaels said.

Meanwhile, there's no standard playbook for dealing with customers who defy retailers' mask requirements. That's why companies typically leave decisions such as whether to call the police up to individual store managers and staff, said Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at GlobalData.

"A lot of retailers really recognize they have a duty of care to their staff and customers. No retailer wants to be accused of being an incubator of the virus," he said. "The policy is the easy part — enforcing them is much more difficult. Customers can turn aggressive, setting your front-line staff up to deal with conflict." 

Most recently, for example, a confrontation inside of a Ralphs grocery store in Los Angeles turned hostile after a man refused to wear a face covering, CBS Los Angeles reports. After the customer allegedly started ramming a woman with a shopping cart, a worker used pepper spray to incapacitate the man and called the police.

Still, Saunders believes the retailers' mandates requiring masks will sway a good portion of the public. "Masks won't be worn by everyone in the store, but it's better to have 95% compliance with that policy, than 50% without masks." 

Workers aren't enforcers

Like many other retailers, Lowe's this week started requiring shoppers wear face masks at its more than 2,200 home-improvement and hardware stores across the U.S. In fact, however, the company's nationwide standard is effectively voluntary because Lowe's is not requiring employees to enforce the rule, saying it doesn't want to put workers in potentially hostile situations.

"We will not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks, so we are consistently requesting that customers wear masks for the safety of everyone in our stores," a spokesperson for the retailer told CBS News in a statement. 

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Lowe's stores will post signage about masks at all store entrances, and the customer service desks will also provide free masks for those who need them, the spokesperson noted. 

Lowe's isn't alone is taking a hands-off approach. In announcing that face masks are now required at its more than 9,900 stores across the country, pharmacy giant CVS said last week that "we're not asking our store employees to play the role of enforcer."

Indeed, before Winn-Dixie's corporate parent changed its tune on mandating face masks in its grocery stores, it said it didn't want to put its workers in the position of having to deal with angry customers.

"We believe that the enforcement should be placed upon our state and federally elected officials, and we will continue to work with our peers in the retail industry to advocate for this sensible mandate to be passed into law to remove the burden from employers and their heroic frontline associates," a spokesperson for Winn-Dixie parent company Southeastern Grocers said.

Meantime, Dollar Tree is dispensing with its policy of requiring masks at its discount Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores altogether. The company now "requests" that shoppers cover their noses and mouths, but only requires it if local mandates apply. Dollar Tree did not return a request for comment on the shift from its prior mandate.

Walmart's "health ambassadors"

There's another reason some retailers may choose not to enforce mask-wearing: It's bad for business. Dollar Tree's business model, for instance, relies on razor-thin profit margins and minimal labor costs, with some stores having only a single person at the register.

"It's almost impossible to enforce in that type of environment," Saunders said.

Conversely, Walmart may have a better shot at enforcing its new mask mandate given the retailing giant already has enough staffing to place greeters at store entrances. Most of the company's more than 4,700 U.S. stores have security on hand, although their role is typically to curb theft. 

In mandating that shoppers wear face masks, Walmart recently said it would station "health ambassadors" in black polo shirts at the entrances of its U.S. stores to "remind" those without masks that they need one. Those workers would be trained to "make the process as smooth as possible," the retailer stated.

Like shopping nude?

Harder to combat are shoppers who wear a face mask in entering a store only to remove it once inside. "Actually chucking someone out when they are already in the store, it is difficult," Saunders said.

At Home Depot, newly dubbed social-distancing "captains" will provide face masks to customers not wearing them to support the home-improvement retailer's new policy, which started Wednesday, the company said.

"Until the federal government steps up to the plate here ... we will continue to have retail workers at risk," said George Washington's Michaels, who dismissed objections to wearing masks as akin to insisting that people should be allowed to shop in the nude.

"People do not have the personal freedom to walk around naked,"said Michaels, who noted that laws prohibiting nudity are meant "to protect other people from exposure to naked bodies."

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