Pandemic warning signs hang outside the Hannaford supermarket in Gray, much like they do at every other grocery, pharmacy or big box store in Maine, urging shoppers to don face coverings, give others a 6-foot buffer and be prepared to wait before they can check out, or even enter the store itself, to avoid overcrowding.
But inside, it is clear Hannaford’s COVID-19 policies, and even some of Gov. Janet Mills’ executive orders, are merely suggestions.
On a recent weekday, a third of the late-morning shoppers wore no face coverings. Customers of all ages, masked and unmasked, pushed carts the wrong way down every one-way grocery aisle, manually inspected the apples and carrots, and unloaded food on to checkout conveyor belts as clerks were still ringing up other customers.
Store managers haven’t even bothered to reapply traffic flow arrows after the last floor waxing, according to employees.
“Yeah, people just kind of ignored the arrows, so we didn’t bother to put them back out,” explained a masked clerk who declined to share her name with a reporter because it was against company policy. “What can you do, right? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink, you know?”
The enforceability of corporate social distancing policies, and even local and state public health rules and gubernatorial executive orders, is a key issue facing business and government as Maine begins to reopen its economy during a pandemic that had infected 2,282 Mainers as of Saturday. Of those, 89 have died.
On Monday, a new group of businesses and recreational areas, ranging from hotels and motels to state beach parks, can open to the public if they comply with the state’s public health checklists. But visits made last week to 20 already opened retailers within an hour’s drive of Portland suggest customer compliance varies wildly by store, region and time of day.
It is an uncomfortable topic for business. Workers worry about getting fired if they talk openly about shopper behavior during the pandemic. Store managers say they can’t afford to lose any business while corporate accountants mull over which stores will close if sales don’t rebound quickly.
Starting on Friday, businesses open to the public may deny entry or service to anyone who isn’t wearing a face covering, according to a new executive order issued by Mills. The governor’s order also requires these businesses to post readily visible signs informing shoppers of the state requirement to wear face coverings where physical distancing is not possible, as many already have.
A spokesman for Scarborough-based Hannaford confirmed its stores are asking, not ordering, customers to obey all local, state and federal public health guidelines, including covering their faces. Hannaford is making that ask across a broad range of formats, including direct signage, emails, social media and newspaper ads, said spokesman Eric Blom.
Shaw’s said it’s taking a similar approach. “We urge our customers to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines and any state mandates for masks, social distancing and other safety procedures when they shop at our stores,” spokeswoman Teresa Edington said in response to questions about how Shaw’s handles customer noncompliance. “We have signs, floor decals and other educational materials reminding our customers.”
Results, however, have been mixed at retailers across southern Maine.
Signs outside the Shaw’s in Auburn ask customers to “please” not enter without a face covering, but many – about 40 percent over an hour – walked bare-faced past the worker counting customers one recent weekday afternoon. Compliance was almost universal at Target in South Portland and Renys in Topsham, where internal and external signs say shoppers must wear masks.
“Most people are real good about masks, but not everybody,” said a Renys clerk in Topsham who was managing the outside wait line during the after-work rush and wiping down returned carts. “Some people have medical reasons, but others fake it, and some walk right by me like I’m not even here. There’s not really much I can do about it.”
The barista manning the drive-thru window at a nearby Starbucks said she often ditches her mask because it muffles her voice so much that customers can’t understand her, leading to drink mistakes and remakes that slow down the line and get her in trouble with both customers and supervisors. And most drive-thru customers don’t wear masks, she notes.
“I’m the only one in my house still working so I can’t mess this up,” the barista said while handing over a coffee, her mask draped under her chin. In the background, a coughing customer could be heard ordering an iced latte.”You hear that guy? He’s practically dying. … He won’t be wearing a mask, but I’m definitely masking up for that guy.”
Customers are obviously growing weary of obeying pandemic restrictions, especially outside of Maine’s urban areas. A bare-faced customer loading bags into a car outside Walgreens in Buxton claimed the pandemic did not affect him. “It’s probably fake news,” he said. When asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask, a True Value shopper in Gray spit at a reporter.
The only sign of the pandemic that could be found inside the independently owned hardware store was a modest Plexiglas shield installed in front of the checkout counter. No one wore a mask, not even the employees. Customers were greeted by smiling, bare-faced staff willing to guide them to just the right gutter shield or weed killer, not COVID-19 warning signs.
But the rural-urban divide was not ubiquitous. Down the road from the Buxton Walgreens, Snell Family Farm requires shoppers to wear face coverings, even if they are in the outdoor areas. You couldn’t pin compliance, or lack thereof, on age, either, although workers said compliance was generally very high at times set aside for older or immune-compromised customers.
At the Cumberland Farms in Wells, only the counter clerk and the panhandler asking customers for bus fare outside the Route 1 store wore face masks on a recent weekday morning, while an overwhelming majority of people stepping inside to buy cigarettes, soda and beer did not. A scan of license plates suggested a mix of in- and out-of-state customers.
While some shoppers ignore COVID-19 rules, retailers say others are taking them too far.
A masked pony-tailed woman carrying two bags of groceries shouted at an unmasked Hannaford employee taking a smoke break alone at a park bench a few minutes’ walk from the Mill Creek store in South Portland on Thursday morning. “You’re supposed to be wearing a mask at all times!” she yelled. “I should report you to your manager!”
The woman did not stop when a reporter tried to question her about the exchange, but the worker, who refused to give his name, said it was not an isolated event. “But you can’t complain because the customer is always right and I really need this job,” he said. “If I didn’t, I’d have quit as soon as the virus hit.”
At the Hilltop Superette in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood, customers have yelled at employees who are medically excused from wearing a mask even though they work behind a Plexiglas shield at the register. Earlier this month, the store had to ban an irate customer swearing at an unmasked employee despite the doctor’s note.
“We at Hilltop take mask guidelines seriously,” the company posted on Facebook. “However, we are not the mask police.”
When a customer walks in without a mask, Hilltop clerks extend those shoppers the same courtesy they hope that customers will give their unmasked co-workers and assume the shopper has a medical condition that prevents mask wearing. They don’t inquire about the details of that shopper’s health to confirm they are medically excused.
The Maine Mall will update its signage to reflect the new state requirements when it reopens Monday, but general manager Craig Gorris wouldn’t say if mall security would kick shoppers out if they refused to wear face coverings. Gorris did say mall staff will monitor conditions to make sure social distancing is being maintained.
As more retailers reopen in the coming weeks and months, one thing seems fairly certain: Getting people to comply with public-health mandates will be continue to be a challenge, as they have been for stores that have remained open all along.
“Associates are not enforcing (the rules) with individual shoppers, but we strongly request our customers’ help in keeping our associates and customers healthy,” said Blom, the Hannaford spokesman.
“We’ve made it a point to educate our associates and customers on the context surrounding these new policies and how each is designed to protect their safety. Understanding the why is important in securing their buy-in.”
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