As Mask Mandates Lift, Retail Workers Again Feel Vulnerable.
Marilyn Reece, the lead bakery clerk at a Kroger in Batesville, Miss., started noticing more customers walking around the store without masks this month after the state mandate to wear face coverings was repealed. Kroger still requires them, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
When Ms. Reece, a 56-year-old breast-cancer survivor, sees those shoppers, she prays. “Please, please, don’t let me have to wait on them, because in my heart, I don’t want to ignore them, I don’t want to refuse them,” she said. “But then I’m thinking I don’t want to get sick and die, either. It’s not that people are bad, but you don’t know who they’ve come into contact with.”
Ms. Reece’s heightened anxiety is shared by retail and fast-food workers in states like Mississippi and Texas, where governments have removed mask mandates before a majority of people have been vaccinated and while troubling new variants of the coronavirus are appearing.
It feels like a return to the early days of the pandemic, when businesses said customers must wear masks but there was no legal requirement and numerous shoppers simply refused. Many workers say that their stores do not enforce the requirement, and that if they do approach customers, they risk verbal or physical altercations.
“It’s given a great false sense of security, and it’s no different now than it was a year ago,” said Ms. Reece, who is not yet able to receive a vaccine because of allergies. “The only difference we have now is people are getting vaccinated but enough people haven’t gotten vaccinated that they should have lifted the mandate.”
For many people who work in retail, especially grocery stores and big-box chains, the mask repeals are another example of how little protection and appreciation they have received during the pandemic.
While they were praised as essential workers, that rarely translated into extra pay on top of their low wages. Grocery employees were not initially given priority for vaccinations in most states, even as health experts cautioned the public to limit time in grocery stores because of the risk posed by new coronavirus variants. (Texas opened availability to everyone 16 and older on Monday.)
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly 900,000 grocery workers, said this month that at least 34,700 grocery workers around the country had been infected with or exposed to Covid-19 and that at least 155 workers had died from the virus. The recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., has only rattled workers further and added to concerns about their own safety.
Diane Cambre, a 50-year-old floor supervisor at a Kroger in Midlothian, Texas, said she had spent much of the past year worrying about bringing the virus home to her 9-year-old son and dreading interactions with customers who were flippant about the possibility of getting sick. She wears a double mask in the store even though it irritates her skin, already itchy from psoriasis, and changes her clothes as soon as she gets home.