To enforce or not? Retail workers in tough spot when customers ignore social distancing rules

As retailers and restaurants take steps to reopen safely, they’re grappling with how to safeguard customer and employee health. But what happens when customers aren’t cooperating?

Customers are getting accustomed to new shopping or dining realities amid the coronavirus pandemic, which puts retail workers in the unique and sometimes dangerous position of enforcing social distancing or mask rules inside stores.

Retail and restaurant employees across the country have been subject to grumbling and complaints, physical or verbal assaults, or even being shot at, like at a Michigan dollar store and an OklahomaMcDonald’s.

Both the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association have released reopening practices for their members, reports RetailDive. Retailers that have been closed over the past two months are looking to grocery stores and others that have remained open to figure out best practices.

Shoppers might find limits on the number of customers in the store, workers frequently cleaning and sanitizing parts of the store, floor arrows indicating one-way aisles, Plexiglass “sneeze guards” or fewer registers being used.

Costco and home improvement chain Menards both require customers to wear masks; Costco has faced both backlash and support for that choice.

Retailers in states that require masks in stores work with local law enforcement to ensure shoppers are compliant, such as grocery chain Jewel-Osco does in Illinois, per the Chicago Tribune.

The Associated Press reports Sandy Jensen, a Sam’s Club employee in California who checks ID cards at the store’s entrance, has had to confront customers without masks, or remind them to keep their distance.

“They are behaving worse now. Everybody is on edge. I have hostile members in my face,” Jensen told the AP.

Despite the presence of a security guard at some retailers, per the AP, employees are still faced with confronting customers who defy the rules.

“It is not right to ask a store employee who was hired to stock shelves or ring sales to suddenly become a store enforcer. You need people who have training…” Nikki Baird, vice president of retail innovation for Aptos, told Retail Wire.

With employee safety in mind, some retailers seek to avoid confrontation. Gourmet grocery chain Fresh Market requests customers wear masks, but does not deny entrance to those without them.

“We do not want to place our team members in a confrontational situation that could result in unintended consequences during an already trying time for many,” Fresh Market spokeswoman Meghan Flynn told the AP.

Walgreens, too, encourages customers to wear masks, but says employees should not confront shoppers or keep them from coming into stores, per the Chicago Tribune.

Employees of Hannaford Supermarkets in Maine were given talking points to use in situations when customers oppose new social distancing rules, reports the Portland Press-Herald.

McDonald’s also is providing employees with talking points if customers object to distancing guidelines, reports The Wall Street Journal.

If a customer sits too close to other diners, a McDonald’s employee is to escort that patron to another section of the dining room, according to a reopening guide.

Some stores might ask customers to take advance action, such as making an appointment online for an in-person shoe fitting, like a Fleet Feet location in Roanoke, Virginia is doing.

“We know that there might be a handful of people that don’t really like all that, but we can’t help that,” owner Robin Lewis said of the measures the store is taking, per The Roanoke Times. “It’s not fair to our staff or customers inside who are willing to be distant and wear a face mask. We’re going to be pretty strict about that.”


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