Are you a health care worker? We’d love to hear from you. Email editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org

By Hannah Critchfield

On Monday, Lora Spencer walked into Dick’s Sporting Goods in Morganton for a quick shopping trip before lunch.

She was relieved to be in a state with a mandated mask policy — her husband had just returned from Florida, a current hot spot for the novel coronavirus, on a frightening Allegiant flight to Asheville where several passengers refused to wear masks.

But inside the store, she watched adults and children enter without cloth face coverings.

Concerned, Spencer asked an employee about this, who in turn got the manager.

“She said, ‘We post signs about this, but we won’t enforce the masks,’” said Spencer. “‘That’s a Dick’s Sporting Goods company-wide policy.’”

The couple was confused.

“I asked, ‘Let me be really clear: You know it’s North Carolina law. And Dick’s Sporting Goods refuses to enforce the law?’” Spencer alleged.

“They said, ‘That’s correct.'”

The same afternoon, they went to Root & Vine, a local restaurant less than two miles away downtown, and met an entirely different picture.

“The hostess was turning people away because they were not wearing a mask,” said Spencer, noting that the business was offering people cloth masks for $1 at the door. “And she was getting a lot of grief.”

Mask use has become highly politicized, despite mounting evidence that face coverings are effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Face coverings are now required in North Carolina businesses, following an executive order from the governor that went into effect on June 26.

Some hoped the stressors of navigating public life during the pandemic would be alleviated by a clear mandate.

But businesses across the state — and often down the street from one another — widely vary in their enforcement of the order, leaving patrons, employees and owners wondering how much of an impact the governor’s order has actually had on increasing mask use, particularly among customers.

‘Encouraging,’ not enforcing

On June 24, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced that mask use would be required for both customers and employees inside businesses statewide. The mandate went into effect two days later.

Responsibility for enforcing the policy largely falls on businesses, which could be fined if they fail to comply with the order.

Sheriffs in 15 counties came forward saying they wouldn’t enforce the governor’s order — that they would instead “encourage” people without masks to don them, but wouldn’t issue any citations.

Even outside those counties, citations appear to be sparse. So far, the seven most populous counties in the state — Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Cumberland, Durham and Buncombe — have issued zero citations.

Looking for a test site? Click below:
Click on the image to go to the NC Find My Testing Place website.

Many businesses, particularly larger, franchise corporations, said they’re mirroring Dick’s Sporting Goods’ policy of “encouraging but not enforcing.”

Holiday Inns in Asheville and Halifax said they won’t deny someone entry if they refuse to wear a face covering (though Holiday Inns in Raleigh said they would), nor will North Carolina-based companies Food Lion, Ingles, and Harris Teeter in their grocery stores across the state, according to company spokespeople. Dick’s Sporting Goods has declined multiple requests for comment.

Many businesses cited the order’s “exception” clause, which allows certain workers and customers to not wear a mask for reasons like a medical or behavioral condition, or a disability.

North Carolinians are currently on an “honor system” concerning whether or not they qualify for one of these exemptions, leading company representatives to express concern over potential liability.

“For those not in compliance, our policy is for a member of store management to approach the shopper to inform them of the order and offer a free, disposable mask,” said Niole Case, communications specialist at Harris Teeter. “If the individual declines, we must remember and understand that there are many exceptions outlined in the order, and our associates are not authorized nor qualified to ask an individual to present proof that they qualify for an exception.”

But for small business owners who are strictly enforcing the order, like Aimee Perez of Root & Vine, opting out is frustrating.

She said it’s been incredibly difficult for her and her staff to assume responsibility for mandating mask use.

“In all honesty, I hate having to be the police,” said Perez. “Asking ‘Hey, thanks for coming in, do you have a mask?’ seems very impersonal and very direct. But you’re not trying to be rude, you’re just trying to be safe.”

Perez said she’s lost a handful of customers who refused to wear a mask.

“People won’t wear a mask for the two minutes it takes to walk to their table,” said Perez. “They don’t understand that we’re the ones that would get in trouble.

“But if the other downtown restaurants were mandating it — if they were doing what they’re supposed to be doing — those customers wouldn’t have anywhere else to go,” she added. “Wearing a mask shouldn’t be an issue, but across the board, you don’t get continuity.”

A legal precedent

It’s not rare for governments to require businesses to enforce safety standards inside the areas they operate, according to Bill Marshall, professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law.

“If owners of amusement parks don’t require people on roller coasters to buckle up, that’d be a problem,” said Marshall. “And it’s going to be enforced against the company, even if it’s the customers doing it.”

Many businesses have particular health or safety requirements — this executive order is a combination of both.

“It’s not all that uncommon to have regulations designed to protect people, even when they sometimes don’t want to be protected,” said Marshall.

It’s also common for the public — in this case, customers — to rebel for a while, he added, but eventually, these policies become normalized.

“We all need to recognize that we’re all making this up as we go along,” said David Carroll, of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, at a recent webinar on businesses managing reopening safely. “It’s so easy to second guess the authorities and what they’ve done and what they’re not done.”

In the future, Carroll said state leaders should give the public and businesses as much advance notice of COVID-19 policy changes as possible.

“I’ve talked to businesses large and small, and getting the rules of the game, so to speak, very late, makes for very difficult implementation,” he said. “And very inconsistent implementation.”

“We’re continuing to encourage businesses to make sure that people have masks on when they come inside, and we’re seeing more and more of them do that,” said Governor Roy Cooper at a July 9 press conference.

Supermarket chain Whole Foods forbids entry to unmasked customers in North Carolina. An employee waits in a tent outside to screen patrons. Photo credit: Hannah Critchfield

Exposing workers to harassment

Caught in the fray of changing policies are workers.

Because employees directly interact with customers, they often bear the brunt of customer resentment amid new mandates.

Richie Reno has worked in the bar industry for decades. He isn’t worried about his current workplace, a CBD shop called Medicine Mama’s Farmacy in Raleigh, where patrons have so far willingly donned a mask when asked.

But he said many friends who still work at bars and restaurants are experiencing higher levels of harassment from customers.

“For management and ownership that is doing [mask policy] enforcement, the job falls entirely on the employees,” said Reno. “People are definitely letting loose on the servers and the servers don’t really have an escape.”

He said many colleagues are worried about their safety, as they continue to serve people who refuse to wear masks as they walk to their table, use the restroom, or hover at the hostess booth while waiting to be seated.

“They feel unprotected,” said Reno. “When you’re standing there, eight hours a day taking it on the chin from people who aren’t wearing a mask, it’s pretty easy to feel expendable. You and your family are at risk to line the boss’s pockets.”

Others have found it difficult to do their job amid the new mask policy.

An unmasked patron at a Family Fare in Durham, NC. Gas stations like Family Fare, where employees interact with customers who quickly enter and exit the building, face an added challenge in enforcing the Governor’s mask rule.
Photo credit: Hannah Critchfield

Lavonte Kendrick agrees with the mask order, but feels his employer Perma USA, a German lubricator company with one U.S.-based factory in Charlotte, leaves little room for nuance in their strict interpretation of the order.

Kendrick was sent home from a shift after he pulled down his mask to talk to a coworker with whom he was carrying out a task, who was having trouble hearing him.

“There really wasn’t a warning,” he said. “They just came down and said, ‘We need you to go home.’”

According to Cooper’s executive order, a worker who “is seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing-impaired in a way that requires the mouth to be visible” or “has found that his or her Face Covering is impeding visibility to operate equipment” could qualify as exempt from the mask requirement.

“We were also like, six feet apart, and whatever, but I think it’s just a difference in the two cultures, you know?” said Kendrick.

What Gov. Cooper said North Carolina needed, even more than enforcement, was for public figures to not only wear masks, and to talk openly about their importance.

“This is the best way to get our economy going full-speed again,” he said. That would help people understand the significance of masks and get them to “stop spreading false science that we know is not true.”

“We’ll continue to look at all avenues of enforcement, but we need to get buy-in from the people here,” he added. “And that’s happening more and more, and we just need leaders across this state of all stripes to step up and help us with this.”

Hannah Critchfield

Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists...

18 replies on “Are NC businesses enforcing the Governor’s mask mandate? It depends.”

  1. If you would do your research, mask don’t help. If you would research a little further, you would see this virus is far less worse than the flu. However, you wear your mask if you are in fear or it makes you feel safer. Cooper doesn’t speak common sense. The spike probably came from protest and riots anyway. That is when the increase came about. Do your research!!!

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for reaching out.

      Here’s some of the research I consulted for this piece, particularly around the effectiveness of masks, as well as existing evidence that demonstrations likely did not lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases:

      Mask-use sources:
      – The CDC, a federal agency which maintains frequent communication with the current Trump administration and Vice President Mike Pence’s coronavirus task force:
      https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html
      (the bottom of this page has a nice ‘recent studies’ list)

      -This recent study’s a good one, because it provides direct evidence on the effectiveness of widespread community use of face masks by looking at the effects of 15 state government mask mandates in the US:
      https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2020.00818

      -The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations (and thus not governed by the United States, in case you’re dubious of U.S.-based reports) responsible for international public health, also recommends mask use based on research. They list serval direct source articles here:
      https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/corrigendum-to-ig-2020-4-ipc-masks-2020-06-05-pp-15-16-2020-06-06-e.pdf?sfvrsn=c5992b89_2

      -This isn’t a primary study, but I find this explainer with two UC San Francisco epidemiologists to be quite lovely, particularly in tasking about why mask use narratives have changed:
      https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/06/417906/still-confused-about-masks-heres-science-behind-how-face-masks-prevent

      ‘How does COVID-19 compare to the flu?’ sources:
      -I haven’t heard of any research suggesting COVID-19 is no worse than the flu — what’s your source for this, if you’re willing to provide it?

      I’ve read a lot that say the exact opposite — and I can send you several more info sources if you’d like, but here’s one speaking to several infectious disease physicians about why COVID-19 can have more severe outcomes (they highlight a higher death rate, a lack of vaccine, a lack of herd immunity, the number of hospitalizations, and the more infectious nature of COVID-19): https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-covid-19-isnt-the-flu#Many-unknowns-about-COVID-19

      Protests:
      -In North Carolina, Secretary Mandy Cohen of the Department of Health and Human Services has said (as recently as last week’s Thursday press conference) that no single exposure site has been the primary driver for an increase in cases. Rather, the state believes it’s a cumulative effect of many people failing to carry out the ‘3W’s’ — social distancing, mask wear, and handwashing. DHHS continues to state that in NC, it’s about a collaborative response — not any one group’s response .
      Here’s the July 9 press conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpBiYE6L1vE

      -Nationally, experts seem to say the protests’ impact needs more research. While early evidence suggests they did not lead to a spike in cases, one should be dubious of any site that definitively says there was or wasn’t a significant impact:
      https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/protests-probably-didnt-lead-to-coronavirus-spikes-but-its-hard-to-know-for-sure/2020/06/30/d8179678-baf5-11ea-8cf5-9c1b8d7f84c6_story.html

      https://www.nber.org/papers/w27408.pdf

      I know this is a time with a lot of information coming at us quickly in a rapidly-changing situation, so I understand that the shifts in narratives from early on (i.e. February, when we were advised by health experts to avoid mask use) to now, (when, thanks to having quite a bit more research and some time to study the impacts of masks, and varied use of masks in different areas of the world, the same health experts say that masks actually DO help prevent the spread of the virus) can be dizzying.

      Part of my job is keeping up with these developments in the information we have around COVID-19, so I’m happy to show my work.

      1. You’ve gone beyond due diligence with scientific facts proving masks absolutely work. But even still, you won’t convince the people who listen to Fox News because they believe that fake news Fox spews and call it research. And this is why Americans are having the worst problem with this outbreak. Selfish people who only listen to news and politicians that support what and how they think instead of listening to the actual medical professionals. It’s so unbelievable that it’s come to this.

  2. Except that it’s not a “law.” It’s an executive order and there are exceptions.

    #WordsMeanThings

    1. Correct Eric, this woman has it all wrong just like most of the morons out there who dont do proper research, then go on their little soapbox tirades and confuse everyone on the internet who dont research either. WORDS DO MEAN THINGS! The Mask “Mandate” does not mean Mask “Law”. Laws & Mandates are completely different. Law enforcement will not come and arrest you for not wearing a mask. Get your facts straight before you go all “I know it all Karen” on the internet and tattle on people in stores.

      1. Hi Eric and CC,

        Thanks for reaching out. The executive order is definitely a mandate — I was careful to not use “law” anywhere in this article.

        We don’t change source quotes, but in my explanation of the mandate I emphasized that it’s a policy, and responsibility for enforcing that policy falls on businesses, which could be fined if they fail to comply with the order. If you can avoid fixating on one of the source’s word choice and look at what she’s saying, it seems the underlying sentiment is: Many people expected businesses to enforce the order because they could be fined otherwise, and have been surprised (and sometimes, concerned or disappointed) to find otherwise.

        My sense is that this mask-mandate-issue, for many of the customers, owners, and employees I spoke to, isn’t a matter of having bad facts or a poor understanding of the policy — I think it’s a matter of expecting a policy to be implemented differently.

  3. A boycott of Ingles and Harris-Teeter might influence them to follow the governor’s order. Their competitors here in Asheville (Publix, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s) all have strict mask requirements, so at least in Buncombe County we have alternatives.

  4. Hannah – Thank you for your work and research for this article that as you helped James see is actual research based on scientific data and public heath instead of some nimrod on Fox & Friends or a Tweet from the absolute worst person to be in the White House and the Governors who pander to him. The irony is not lost in seeing photos of “my body my choice” in regard to covid being later reported dead from Covid-19. Not too mention many are fine with telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. I feel for the essential workers bearing the risk and brunt of the determined recklessness, selfishness and risk no mask malcontents place on them. Here is to November and a blue wave. It’s an abomination the right wing fringe has made life and death in a pandemic political.

  5. Whether or not it is a mandate or law, to me it is common sense that many people seem to be lacking. Why do we need to politicize these issues with ‘it is my choosing’ whether I want to do it or not. Granted, there is not 100% scientific evidence that masks will always help, but wouldn’t you rather play it safe? If not for yourself, is it too much asked to do it for someone else who you may infect!? Why can people in Japan all wear face masks and we rebel against such an order, or even advice? Because you are an American and have the ‘right'(??) to do so?! Pretty selfish in my opinion!

  6. To whom would you report a retail business in which none of the employees is wearing a mask and stated upon entering, “masks are optional?”

    1. To whom should I report a person/business that does not wear a mask.
      New Hope Salon in Brevard is the business I am referring to.

  7. How bout we ALL simply wear a mask EVERYWHERE we go for 1 month and then let’s check the numbers! Masks are not ideally comfortable and pretty easy to get used to and it’s a good time for our entire state to come together and just try it( 1 month is all I’m initially asking) and see if it makes a positive difference.
    Come on N.C., surely we can at least try this small gesture for each other?

  8. Browbeating innocent Citizens does not change the Mandate:

    Taken from EXECUTIVE ORDER NO. 147 of June 24, 2020

    ROY COOPER GOVERNOR
    Section 3.5. Face Coverings
    B. Where Face Coverings Are Required. People are required to wear Face Coverings in the following settings, whether they are inside or outside,***unless an exception applies***.

    1. In Retail Businesses. Retail Businesses must have all workers wear Face Coverings when they are or may be within six (6) feet of another person. In addition, Retail Businesses must have all customers wear Face Coverings when they are inside the establishment and may be within (6) feet of another person,***unless the customer states that an exception applies****.

    2. In Restaurants. Restaurants must have all workers wear Face Coverings when they are or may be within six (6) feet of another person. In addition, restaurants must have all customers wear Face Coverings when not at their table, ***unless the customer states that an exception applies***.

    3. In Personal Care, Grooming, and Tattoo Businesses. Personal Care, Grooming, and Tattoo Businesses must have workers wear Face Coverings when they are or may be within six (6) feet of another person. In addition, the business must have all customers wear Face Coverings when they are inside the establishment and may be within six (6) feet of another person,***unless the customer states that an exception applies***.
    (7 more Requirement Areas on the Order not here listed.)

    C. Exceptions. This Executive Order does not require Face Coverings for-and ***a Face Covering does not need to be worn by-a worker, customer, or patron who***:

    1. Should not wear a Face Covering due to any medical or behavioral condition or disability (***including, but not limited to***, any

      1. Browbeating innocent Citizens does not change the Mandate:
        Taken from EXECUTIVE ORDER NO. 147 of June 24, 2020

        ROY COOPER GOVERNOR
        Section 3.5. Face Coverings
        B. Where Face Coverings Are Required. People are required to wear Face Coverings in the following settings, whether they are inside or outside,***unless an exception applies***.

        1. In Retail Businesses. Retail Businesses must have all workers wear Face Coverings when they are or may be within six (6) feet of another person. In addition, Retail Businesses must have all customers wear Face Coverings when they are inside the establishment and may be within (6) feet of another person,***unless the customer states that an exception applies****.

        2. In Restaurants. Restaurants must have all workers wear Face Coverings when they are or may be within six (6) feet of another person. In addition, restaurants must have all customers wear Face Coverings when not at their table, ***unless the customer states that an exception applies***.
        (8 more Requirements on the Order not here listed.)

        C. Exceptions. This Executive Order does not require Face Coverings for-and ***a Face Covering does not need to be worn by-a worker, customer, or patron who***:
        1. Should not wear a Face Covering due to any medical or behavioral condition or disability (***including, but not limited to***, any person who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious or incapacitated, or is otherwise unable to put on or remove the face covering without assistance);
        (10 more exceptions on the Order not here listed.)

        Anyone who declines to wear a Face Covering for these reasons should not be required to produce documentation or any other proof of a condition.

        F. Enforcement of Face Covering Requirements.
        1. Citations under this Section shall be written only to businesses or organizations that fail to enforce the requirement to wear Face Coverings. ***Operators of businesses and organizations are entitled to rely on their customers or patrons’ statements about whether or not they are excepted from the Face Covering requirements, and businesses and organizations do not violate this Executive Order if they rely on such statements.***

  9. I guess the best thing to do is to “vote” with our wallets and boycott the businesses that cater to the reckless and selfish.

  10. I wonder if those assuming that people in stores without masks on are just being uncaring and reckless are the same people that leave ugly notes on cars in Veterans’ Parking spots if they think the person does not “look like a veteran” (ps- women are veterans too!) or complain about children acting up in stores and assume they must have been “raised wrong” (ever hear of autism?)?

  11. I’m the person that intubates you and helps you breathe with a ventilator, responds to patients dying to save them, and sees the reality of this virus compared to flu.
    It’s very real and serious. We don’t know enough about it but WE DO KNOW THAT ITS FAR WORSE THAN THE FLU.
    ***America is about the respect for each other’s beliefs and freedoms. Wearing masks is necessary to diminish the severity and should be done if merely to respect each other’s concerns for health in an unprecedented and unknown situation.
    We are all able to think and feel differently but should remain respectful of other’s opinions and remember that the condition of this country will always be decided by the respect we hold for each other.
    Remember, if all of us don’t wear masks then we must also know that we don’t all need vaccines. If it’s all come down to personal choice then you must respect the choice of others. Refuse law and order, refuse respect, refuse…. LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. Be a part of it or get out. I’ve fought for our freedoms and now fight for our health. Don’t make me fight my fellow Americans. That’s what’s coming, if we do not RESPECT.•••

Comments are closed.