Does no mask mean no service?

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 11/18/20

HONESDALE, PA — By now, most of us have probably experienced, witnessed or heard second hand about a heated argument breaking out in a grocery store between two customers over the fact that one …

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Does no mask mean no service?

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HONESDALE, PA — By now, most of us have probably experienced, witnessed or heard second hand about a heated argument breaking out in a grocery store between two customers over the fact that one is refusing to put on a mask. A scenario that would have sounded nonsensical last year barely warrants a second thought in pandemic-stricken 2020.

A few months ago, a River Reporter reader emailed the paper recounting such an instance. She was standing in the checkout line at Weis Markets in Honesdale when she saw that the customer behind her had no mask on. Following a “showdown” between the two, the customer still refused to put on a mask, so the woman decided to get staff involved. However, an employee said that there was little recourse since the unmasked customer claimed that her medical condition prevented her from covering her face.

“As far as I know, a store proprietor has every right to kick out a non-compliant customer,” the reader wrote in her email.

But it’s not quite that simple.

The black and white

Last July, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health Rachel Levine issued a Universal Face Coverings Order, mandating that individuals must wear a mask if they are outdoors and unable to socially distance, indoors where members of the public are permitted, waiting for or using public transportation, obtaining health care services, or at their workplace.

The Department of Health clarifies the order further on an FAQ page:

“Do businesses need to deny entry to those not wearing a face covering such as a mask? Yes, however, if a business provides medication, medical supplies, or food, that business must offer another means for the customer to purchase goods if the customer is unable to wear a face covering.”

The gray

Levine’s order, however, also made several exceptions. Namely, the order does not apply to individuals who can’t wear a mask due to a medical condition, workers for whom wearing a mask would create unsafe working conditions, individuals who wouldn’t be able to remove a mask without assistance, children under 2 years old, or individuals who need to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired or otherwise needs to read lips to communicate.

Importantly, the order states that individuals do not need to show documentation proving that they are exempt for any of the above reasons.

Local perspective

The local Weis Markets did not respond to a request for comment. However, Mike Flederbach, who runs Honesdale grocery Dave’s Super Duper, confirmed that if a customer refuses to put on a mask, there’s not much the store can do about it. During the early days of the state’s mask requirement, a customer came into Super Duper without a mask and was asked by employees to put one on. When the customer responded that they couldn’t due to a respiratory condition, Flederbach said it was an “egg-on-your-face” situation for the store.

Since then, Super Duper changed its approach. Signs posted throughout the store urge customers to put on a mask, and the vast majority comply, Flederbach said. The small percentage who don’t, though, won’t be confronted by any employees. (He noted that 100 percent of employees are required to wear masks in the store.)

“[If you’re not wearing a mask], we’re assuming that you must have some issue that prevents you from wearing a mask,” Flederbach said. 

By his estimation, Flederbach guesses that half of unmasked customers have a legitimate condition preventing them from wearing one, and the other half just don’t want to or don’t believe in their effectiveness. Either way, he doesn’t want to be in “that position to say, ‘Do you have a medical condition?’ because it’s something that somebody really doesn’t want to talk about.”

Flederbach said this stance isn’t unique to his store. Super Duper is part of a co-op that has grocery stores throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the consensus has been that stores “have no ground to stand on” in kicking out customers who refuse to put on a mask.

Flederbach said that, in his store, it’s been months since tempers have flared and any verbal altercations over masks have broken out; he attributes this to people being less on-edge about the pandemic in general. He also thinks that customers who don’t wear masks tend to keep their distance from everyone else in the store.

“Everybody’s trying to do their part,” he said. “It’s just one of those things, you just don’t want to stir the nest.”

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