As more states lift requirements that people wear COVID-19 masks indoors when in public, what can small businesses do to protect their employees—and other customers who still prefer to wear masks?
As of April 5, more than one-third of states (18) lacked mask requirements, some of which never had them in the first place, according to the Associated Press. But business owners are certainly legally entitled to require them if they so choose, given that their public-facing spaces are still private property that they either rent or own, as long as they don’t discriminate. Customers who refuse to wear a mask, are asked to leave and stubbornly do not are therefore trespassing, and business owners could involve police if they so choose.
The AP notes that federal and some state laws require employers to maintain a safe place of work for their employees, and a mask mandate falls under that definition. The federal OSHA website notes, in a section about COVID-19, that places of employment must be “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
The National Retail Federation stands by businesses that continue to require masks even if state or local government no longer does. “Retail stores are private entities,” Bill Thorne, NRF senior vice president of communications and public affairs, wrote in a statement to ABC News. “It is within their right to implement and enforce policies that protect the health and safety of their employees and customers.”
Even when states and local governments impose mask mandates, it’s generally left up to businesses to enforce them, which has led to altercations between customers and employees, Thorne noted. “This is not due to government mandates; it is because of [businesses’] proven commitment to do the right thing for their employees, and their neighbors in the communities they serve.”
ABC News noted that CVS, Starbucks and Target are among the businesses that have said they will keep mandates in place. CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said employees have been asked to ask customers not wearing a mask to put one on—but if the customer still refuses, the employee should avoid a confrontation and simply “help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible.” Target is making disposable masks available at the entrances to stores—and asking those who would prefer not to wear a mask to shop online or do curbside pickup.
While masking requirements have led to loud confrontations with some customers, however, research from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business shows that a quieter majority of customers like mask mandates in retail stores and rate businesses that have them as more caring and competent.
The research looked at attitudes toward hospitals and airlines, along with small businesses like bakeries, pharmacies, movie theaters, hair salons and gyms—and discovered that people perceived businesses with mask mandates as “more caring, warmer, more competent and more trusted.” In addition, the Booth researchers found that business managers thought consumers were much less likely to prefer a strict policy than they actually were.
“Businesses face a risk that they will give in to a vocal minority who oppose masks,” said Professor Oleg Urminsky, who conducted the study along with researcher Abigail Bergman, “and not notice that they are losing the trust and patronage of the majority of consumers who prefer shopping in an environment that enforces mask wearing.”