Stores need to hire security guards and give management the go-ahead to crack down on shoppers who refuse to wear masks, the head of a union that represents retail workers said Wednesday.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, made the call after a series of sometimes violent incidents in which cashiers, stock clerks and even customers have been pitted against people who refused to abide by stores' mask policies, which are aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
Many store owners have "abdicated their responsibility" and left it up to rank-and-file workers to enforce the policies, Appelbaum said.
"It's not the job of the employees to enforce the store rules on face masks," Appelbaum said in an interview. "It's the employers' responsibility to tell people to leave the store if they are not wearing face masks."
Big retailers routinely enforce prohibitions against entering stores without shoes or shirts, he said. And with the national death toll from COVID-19 now over 151,000, there's no reason store operators shouldn't do the same with masks, he said.
"If they say they have a face mask policy and don't enforce it, then they don't have a face mask policy," said Appelbaum, who said that under their contracts, workers at Bloomingdale's and Macy's in New York aren't required to serve customers who aren't wearing masks.
"Retail workers have public-facing jobs," he added. "They're going to be in contact with hundreds of people every day. And some places, people may be in contact with more than a thousand people a day."
Why aren't stores doing more to enforce the mask-wearing rules?
"I think that some employers are afraid of alienating customers," Appelbaum said. "They don't want to lose business. And so they don't enforce it. I also think some employers know that, unfortunately, wearing a mask has become politicized and they want to stay out of that debate. It's wrong. They need to enforce the rules."
Two New York City men were arrested this week and accused of assaulting workers at a Trader Joe's in Manhattan who tried to enforce the company's mask-wearing policy.
Also this week, a Florida man who was shopping at a Walmart in Palm Beach County while not wearing a mask was arrested and accused of pulling a gun on another man who demanded to know why he wasn't following the store's rules.
In another incident, a Walmart in Minnesota was thrown into an uproar when two shoppers insisted on wearing masks bearing Nazi swastikas.
And in what's perhaps the best-known example of store workers having to lay down the law, another Florida man was caught on video pushing and shoving Walmart workers in Orlando after he was told he couldn't enter the store without a mask.
Walmart's policy requiring all workers and customers to wear masks ins its stores went into effect July 20. Most stores around the country are following federal guidelines and have similar rules in place.
But while the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that face coverings be worn in stores and other public places, the U.S. government has balked thus far at issuing a blanket requirement to wear masks, leaving the decision on masks to state, county and sometimes municipal governments.
While some of those mandates carry threats of fines and jail time for people who flout mask-wearing requirements, experts say they lack "teeth" and are next to impossible to enforce.
President Donald Trump helped politicize the issue by refusing — until very recently — to wear a mask in public. Many of his most ardent supporters followed his lead, often claiming that a mask-wearing mandate was a violation of their rights.
Some mask refuseniks are now paying a price.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, an arch-conservative Republican who has rarely been seen wearing a mask on Capitol Hill, tested positive Wednesday for the coronavirus just before he and Trump were supposed to fly down together to Texas.
In other COVID-19-related developments, California passed Massachusetts on Tuesday as the state with the third-highest number of coronavirus deaths, with 8,722, an NBC News tally showed.
New York and New Jersey, which were hit hard in March and April and have since been able to flatten the curve, are still ranked one and two in the number of COVID-19 deaths. But the number of coronavirus deaths in states like Florida and Texas, which followed Trump's calls to reopen early and relax quarantine rules, has exploded in recent weeks. Each state now has more than 6,000 reported deaths.
And on Wednesday, Florida reported a new single-day record of 217 deaths, up from the previous record of 191, which was reported on Tuesday.