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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”