With the outbreak of COVID-19, the gift and retail industry has been thrust into a sort of twilight zone of operation. The ever-delicate balance of wanting to be open to customers and wanting to protect everyone. It really is an impossible predicament. The rules are being written in real time. The last time there was anything that happened like this in the U.S. was in the early twentieth century. So much has changed over 100 years.
So how can retailers navigate the mask issue? Keep in mind, when asking customers, or even employees for that matter, to wear masks, the business owner is asking for a behavior change. Often, behavior changes happen over a period of time, not in a split-second instance. So, by pivoting to masks everywhere on everyone is not a gradual shift. Although there is no one rule, here are some guidelines that may help the retailer navigate best practices for their employees and customers. Above all else, as a business owner, maintaining quality goods, exceptional service, and a kind response will win the day!
Examine what your state rules are.
As of the writing of this article, there are 34 states and the District of Columbia that have a state mask mandate. That is important to know. While many states may be handling the mask mandate in the same way or similarly, the burden is on you as the business owner in that state to find out what the mandate states, what is required, who it applies to, who is exempt, or is there any power that is granted further to the local governments. Your state’s government homepage should have the latest COVID-19 news. Most likely the most up to date information will be posted there.
Examine what your local rules are.
Likewise, there may also, in addition to a state’s mandate, be local mandates. This may be governed by the municipality/city or the county. It really depends on how your local government is organized. It is important to review these mandates in light of any state mandates that exist to get the full context of what is required.
Provide disposable masks at the front door.
If a business owner is requiring patrons to wear masks, it is prudent to provide disposable masks. There are times when one forgets or may misplace their own mask. By providing disposable masks, the business owner cuts out the possibility of the customer’s absentmindedness. Additionally, it is more difficult to deny wearing a mask when the store the customer is entering is offering them a free disposable mask.
Have an employee greet the customer.
Some may disagree with this suggestion, however, it is more difficult for someone to refuse to wear a mask when someone is there at the door to greet them in a friendly way with a disposable mask and sanitizer. Many of the “big box” stores handle masking this way. Also, major amusement entertainment venues, which have retail stores on their grounds, have employees whose sole job it is to greet and ask for masks to be worn. If this route is right for your business, the best thing you can do is educate your employees. Empower your employees by helping them to know what the mandates say. Knowing what they say means they can explain them in a way, if needed, that is non-threatening to the customer. Although this may not ensure one 100% compliance, it will engender confidence that your staff is concerned with all patrons’ safety.
Post your store policy everywhere.
Once you are clear on what your policy for your retail store should be, post it — EVERYWHERE. The more it is posted, the more people will see it, which means they cannot use the excuse, “I didn’t know.” Be sure to post it on your website, app, social media platforms, and of course, near the front of your brick-and-mortar location.
It may be tempting to not worry about mask policies. If your state or local government require it, then you really cannot ignore it. However, consistency helps guarantee that there is you are clear, as a business owner on your position. Where there is ambiguity or disparity in policy, there is always a greater possibility for a conflict or dispute. Being consistent takes more effort on the business owner’s part, however it will pay off in the long run.
Do not escalate the situation with aggressive behavior.
We have all seen in the news, situations that ended in less than desirable ways because behavior became aggressive. If a customer becomes aggressive, do not meet that behavior with the same. You may warn them of your policy. If they do not comply, then it is your choice then whether to call the authorities. Calling the authorities does not mean that someone has to go to jail. It simply means that someone whose authority that customer may respect will be present.
Unfortunately, there is no magic solution to a pandemic. We are all figuring this out as we go. Even we attorneys are having to figure out how to interpret the law in light of the pandemic, the mandates, and modified rules. One of the best things we can do is be considerate of others and extend grace to one another. We WILL get through it all.
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