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Md. businesses, employees caught in the middle on masks

Md. businesses, employees caught in the middle on masks

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People wear masks to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus as they shop at the Pennsylvania Dutch Market in Cockeysville earlier this year. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
People wear masks to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus as they shop at the Pennsylvania Dutch Market in Cockeysville earlier this year. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Maryland businesses and their employees find themselves increasingly caught in a battle zone, expected to enforce the governor’s order that store customers wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic even as some patrons are bridling at following that order.

Employees and managers are having to persuade balking and sometimes angry customers that they need to wear the face coverings, all while avoiding a confrontation or summoning police.

Grace Chubb has been working at Arctic Circle in Harford County, an old-fashioned drive-in that serves milkshakes, ice cream and fast food, every summer since she was a high school sophomore. Chubb, who is entering her senior year in college, said she frequently encounters customers who yell at her about the establishment’s mask requirements.

One man who refused to wear a mask yelled at Chubb for five minutes last week.

“He said that he was ‘sick of all this s–t,’” Chubb said. “He didn’t want to wear a mask. He didn’t care. ‘Just give me my ice cream.’”

The man came back 20 minutes later and apologized.

“He said, ‘It’s not your fault. You’re just trying to do your job. I was upset. They were my feelings. It’s not about you or the mask rule, and I shouldn’t have behaved that way,’” Chubb said.

Although Arctic Circle has a sign that says “No Mask, No Service,” some people think they can order without covering their faces, said Chubb, since the establishment only has an outdoor walk-up window and an indoor register with no indoor seating.

A woman shopping at Home Goods in Towson earlier this week said she asked a fellow shopper why she was not wearing a mask, pointing out that employees at the entrance were telling customers they needed to do so. The mask-less shopper brushed her off, saying that demanding she wear a mask was harassment.

When the first shopper, who asked that she not be named, went to store employees to complain, she said, she was informed that Home Goods management had told staffers there was nothing that they could do if someone refused to wear a mask.

A spokesperson from TJX Companies, a group that includes Home Goods, said the company expects customers to wear face coverings while in U.S. stores and requires associates to do so in the interest of health and safety.

“We clearly instruct customers to do so through our signage, which is emphasized at entrances and reinforced throughout our stores,” the representative said in an e-mail statement. The spokesperson did not address a question about the Towson incident.

What the order says

Wearing masks has become an increasingly vivid sign of the nation’s political divide. President Trump’s ambivalence about masks, some say, has emboldened many to view wearing them as a sign of weakness or an infringement on their personal liberty.

Futher confusing the issue were the mixed messages sent out initially by public health experts themselves. Instructions in February and March that masks were not needed were later rescinded.

Business owners that do not enforce Gov. Larry Hogan’s mask requirement face no criminal sanction but may be held civilly liable if a customer contracts the virus from a patron without a required nose-and-mouth covering, said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

“There’s a general civil duty that the owner of a business has,” McCarthy said. “Merchants have an obligation to keep their businesses safe.”

Enforcement of the mask requirement in stores is left to management in the first instance. Store managers have the right not to admit or otherwise serve customers not wearing masks, just as management can deny entry or service to patrons not wearing shirts or shoes.

Failure to wear a mask in a retail establishment, however, is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine under Hogan’s emergency orders. But an arrest would be the absolute last resort of law enforcement and conducted only with the permission of the jurisdiction’s chief prosecutor, said McCarthy, citing a statewide agreement among his colleagues.

Mike Novak, right, pays for items while while wearing a mask with a message requesting others to stay away more than six feet while shopping in a bakery, in Nottingham earlier this year. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Mike Novak, right, pays for items while while wearing a mask with a message requesting others to stay away more than six feet while shopping in a bakery, in Nottingham earlier this year. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The preferred resolution for a customer not wearing a mask is for him or her to accede to a police officer’s request that he or she put one on, McCarthy said.

If the person still refuses, the officer could cite the individual for failing to obey a lawful police order. The officer could also cite the person for trespassing if he or she refused store management’s request that he or she leave for not wearing a mask, McCarthy said.

The penalty for trespassing is up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. Failure to obey is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

McCarthy said his experience has been that the officers’ arrival or presence in a  store results in the recalcitrant customer leaving or putting on a mask.

“A lot of our job in law enforcement is public education,” McCarthy said. “We are not trying to lock people up.”

Burden on businesses

Under Hogan’s executive order, there are several things retail  employees can do if someone refuses to don a mask. Nevertheless, employees should not be expected to handle belligerent or abusive behavior, said Mike O’Halloran, Maryland state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

“A 17-year-old kid who works the cash register at his local grocery store did not sign up to de-escalate a situation where a customer just outright refuses with no reasoning to wear a face mask. It can turn into a pretty big issue,” O’Halloran said. “I mean, I used to work in bars, and I actually used to work the front door at a lot of bars and I at least was, quote-on-quote,  ‘signing up for that’, in case a fight broke out.”

Maryland’s chapter of NFIB has been telling its more than 3,000 members to follow local ordinances and the governor’s executive order to minimize their legal liability. O’Halloran said multiple members of the legal community have warned him the executive order renders businesses liable to civil lawsuits as potential spreaders of COVID-19 if they fail to follow precautions.

Businesses have received a very clear directive for handling situations where customers refuse to wear masks, said Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, a group that works with thousands of owners. Businesses must ask a non-compliant individual to put a mask on if they remove it or refuse to wear it, said Locklair. This is typically done repeatedly.

If the customer does not listen, businesses are supposed to call the local police department, and officers must specifically ask three times if the customer wants to remain by putting on a mask.  Police would remove a noncompliant customer, said Locklair, who would then receive fines and a criminal citation.

Both O’Halloran and Locklair said employees typically de-escalate issues themselves and the police are rarely called. This is partially because businesses do not want to upset customers, regardless of whether or not they are compliant, said Locklair.

“Retailers do not want to make their customers feel uncomfortable, but the problem is when other customers see an individual who is not wearing a mask, they get very uncomfortable, right?” Locklair said.  “So, the retailer’s walking this very kind of thin line or a tightrope if you will about trying to keep the peace between their customers.”


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