Christopher Vanderpool works shifts as a “health ambassador” at a Walmart in Fayetteville, N.C., For $11 an hour, he stands in the parking lot asking customers to put on masks before entering the store.
Many abide by the rule. Others, the 18-year-old said, “will say ‘No, I am not wearing that garbage,’ or some expletive.”
“Everyone is so tense,” Mr. Vanderpool said. “I would be scared to confront people.”
Big retailers have made strong statements recently about their new rules requiring customers to wear face masks when shopping, saying that the health of their workers and customers is paramount. But when it comes to enforcing those mandates, the companies are taking a decidedly hands-off approach.
Walmart has told employees that they should not prevent a customer from entering the store if they refuse to wear a mask. Walgreens said that “for the safety of our team members” the company would not bar customers without masks from its stores. Lowes also said it would “not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks.”
Many shoppers and workers say the retailers’ reluctance to police their customers’ mask wearing ultimately renders the new rules toothless and will perpetuate the spread of the coronavirus. And workers find themselves thrust onto the front line of a cultural and political war over masks that can lead to ugly confrontations and, at times, violence. Last weekend, two episodes stood out: In one, a video of an altercation involving two shoppers in Walmart wearing masks with a Nazi swastika went viral, while a man was arrested after an incident in a Walmart in Palm Beach County, Fla., in which he pulled a gun on another shopper who had asked him to put on his mask.
Adding to the tension at his store, Mr. Vanderpool said that he’s noticed more customers coming in with guns, including Glocks and other handguns, sometimes tucked into their waistbands. North Carolina is among states that allow people to carry firearms openly.
Walmart enacted a rule last year asking customers not to bring firearms into its stores, after nearly two dozen people were shot and killed in one of its locations in El Paso. In a stance echoed by its mask policy, the company said managers of stores in states that have open-carry laws are instructed to ask customers to leave their gun in their car. But they do not obstruct the person from shopping in the store, even if they bring their gun. Walmart said there had not been a recent increase in shoppers bringing guns into stores across the country during the pandemic.
Mr. Vanderpool said Walmart should hire security guards to enforce the mask rule and protect employees from contracting the virus. “They should be able to say if you don’t have a mask you cannot come into our store,’’ said Mr. Vanderpool, who is enrolled at Brown University in the fall.
In a statement, Walmart said, “we are pleased that the vast majority of the 150 million customers who visit us each week are wearing masks.”
The retailer said that if someone didn’t want to wear a mask, managers “will talk to the customer and try to find a solution. We do not want our associates to do anything that could lead to a physical confrontation.”
Walmart said it was also trying to accommodate shoppers who cannot wear masks for medical or religious reasons.
But some shoppers say the retailers are taking the easy way out by announcing mask policies that are not true mandates.
Toni Vitanza has shopped regularly for her husband’s medication at a Walgreens near their home in Clemson, S.C., but has transferred his prescriptions to another retailer after observing shoppers without masks and employees saying that their managers expressly told them not to do anything about it.
“My feeling is, if you cannot say something as simple as, ‘You have to wear a mask in the store,’ you shouldn’t be working in a store,” she said. “I refuse to believe that every person who gets angry about having to wear a mask is capable of committing murder.”
A retired flight attendant, Ms. Vitanza said that she regularly had to ask passengers to do things they didn’t want to do — and on a few occasions she had to have some of them removed from the plane. She often used humor to defuse a situation. “But maybe with 150,000 people dead, we are past humor,” she said.
“We all know there is a certain percentage of human beings who just like getting away with something,” she said. “These people are having a field day.”
In a statement, a Walgreens spokeswoman said: “We ask that all customers adhere to strong recommendations from health officials to wear face covers in public,” but added that “our store staff may remind customers of this policy, however for the safety of our team members, we are not otherwise confronting individuals nor refusing service to those who do not follow it.”
Retailers are likely on solid legal ground if they decline service to someone refusing to wear a mask, especially if they offer alternative ways for customers to shop, such as home delivery and curbside pickup.
Legal experts say retailers could run into issues of discrimination if they start asking detailed questions about why someone declines to wear a mask.
“Retailers don’t want to be in the business of interviewing everyone who comes in the door,” said Natalie Sanders, a lawyer at Brooks Pierce, a North Carolina law firm that is advising companies on mask policies. “Retailers are making difficult decisions and doing the best they can. They have to make a judgment call.”
But in reality, many of the judgment calls are being made by the retailer workers, not their giant employers, every hour in an increasingly unpredictable environment.
After losing her job at a nonprofit in March, Chivonne Washington was low on cash and unable to qualify for unemployment. The manager of the Acme grocery store in White Plains, N.Y., gave her a job and $40 “for my pocket.”
“He had compassion,” Ms. Washington said of the store manager.
But Ms. Washington said she was constantly navigating how to deal with customers who were not wearing masks.
When she recently told a man waiting at her checkout line to put on his mask, “he was very aggressive,” she recalled.
“He told me, ‘Why are you running your mouth?’” He took his items to a different line. Before leaving the store, the man told a manager that Ms. Washington “talked too much.”
Christine Wilcox, a spokeswoman for Acme’s parent company, Albertsons, said store managers have been told to speak with customers who are not wearing masks. “If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk,” she said in a statement.
If the store is in a community where masks are required by law, then the store manager “will also contact local law enforcement,” Ms. Wilcox said.
But Ms. Washington, who earns about $230 a week at Acme, has been doing her part to help. When a woman came in without a mask, Ms. Washington went out to her car to get her one. Some of her colleagues who are timid about confronting customers without masks have asked Ms. Washington to get involved.
“I saw someone take off their mask in the store to sneeze,” said Ms. Washington, who is a member of Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. “This is what we are dealing with — a lack of common sense.”
The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, representing workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdales in New York, insisted that the stores could reopen only if it was stated that if a customer is not wearing a mask, an employee cannot help them and must immediately locate a manager.
Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, said retailers needed to invest in more security guards or empower management to confront shoppers, not leave it up to rank-and-file workers. But not enforcing the rules, when they are challenged, is not effective, he said.
“A rule that isn’t enforced,” Mr. Appelbaum said, “is not a rule.”