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Retail Workers Deal With Harassment Over Enforcing Mask Mandate

Shari Bernstein
Outside the Foothills Cafe a sign says “Please wait here for staff” and “Mask is required upon entry.” ";s:3:"u

This week a shopper in Meijer in Acme threatened an employee with a knife, upset he was told to wear a mask.

In Lansing, a man was stabbed and in May, a security guard at a Flint dollar store was shot to death.

Northern Michigan businesses say confrontations have increased recently, as customers unhappy with the mask policy harass workers tasked with enforcing the policy.

Shari Bernstein, a co-owner of the Foothills Motel and Cafe in Leelanau, says a man recently entered the restaurant without a mask. When she asked him to put one on, he shouted he would boycott the business and left.

Bernstein says she felt the situation could have escalated to violence.

“We had a little meeting outside in the back of the cafe afterwards to discern what are we going to do in the future if something happens like this? We ask them to leave, but what if they’re not going to?”

The unpleasant behavior was not unique, Bernstein says. For weeks she’s worked with customers who are upset with the motel’s new COVID-19 policies, which include not bringing clean towels into your room but leaving them at the door.

“I’ve heard, ‘that’s ridiculous. It’s clean up here. I’m not bringing anything into your hotel, or into your cafe,’” Bernstein says. “They don’t care to wear masks and they don’t care to follow any of our protocols.” 

Bernstein’s line of work used to be in mental health and substance abuse services. She says she uses that training to help her staff deal with those who don’t want to follow the rules.

Bernstein is sympathetic to those who are frustrated with wearing masks and social distancing. She thinks to some extent the government is being overly cautious in its response. Still, she says she won’t risk her immunocompromised employees or customers getting sick.

“I have people that come to eat at the Foothills who are in their 70s and 80s and they’ve been coming here for years, Bernstein says. “In all honesty they need the Foothills. It’s part of their social entertainment for the day.” 

In Traverse City, Oryana Community Co-op instituted a strict mask policy just before the governor’s more recent executive order.

General Manager Steve Nance says with hundreds of people circulating throughout the two stores each day, he needs to protect his workers.

He’s made many arrangements to make it easy for people who can’t tolerate a mask to get their groceries. Nance says they offer face shields at the entrance and accommodate curbside pickup. He says he’ll even deliver groceries on his bike.

Still, some people refuse to cooperate.

“That caused both difficult conversations for staff, sometimes confrontations, and it was starting to cause confrontations between shoppers,” Nance says.

He says there’s been more than a couple situations where people won’t wear a mask or leave the store, leading managers to the uncomfortable situation of calling the police on their customers to be arrested for trespassing.

“With the last executive order, it did put the onus on the retailers to kind of police this and our staff aren’t trained,” Nance says.

Meegan Holland, a spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association, says the mask-wearing policy has been a challenge for stores.

“Retailers are very used to serving customers so this is a new role for them to be in an enforcement role of an order they have to comply with,” she says.

Some police departments across the state have said they won’t respond to mask enforcement issue, but Holland says they will come if customers are being unruly.

She says the Retailers Association has given four de-escalation webinars and plans to offer more. They give advice such as specific phrases to use, or ways to change your demeanor, to calm down agitated customers.

“Unfortunately some customers have shown they’re still very angry and going to get out of control regardless. So we’re worried about retailers being put in a dangerous position,” Holland says.

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