A customer wearing a protective mask shops at a Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) clothing store at Westfield San Francisco Centre in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Michael Short | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Desparate to keep their workers safe and their lights on, retailers reached out to the National Governors Association Monday, urging policymakers for their help in sending a strong and uniform message about social distancing and wearing a mask. 

The letter from the Retail Industry Leaders Association comes amid a huge surge in coronavirus cases — with total cases in the U.S. doubling since mid-May — and an increasingly hostile backlash against facial coverings. Businesses, from retailers to movie theaters, have been faced with a patchwork of rules from state and local governments as they reopened their businesses. With no other choice, they have been attempting to implement their own mandates for face masks and also enforce them.

“Despite compliance from the majority of Americans, retailers are alarmed with the instances of hostility and violence front-line employees are experiencing by a vocal minority of customers who are under the misguided impression that wearing a mask is a violation of their civil liberties,” the retail group, whose members include Best Buy, Dollar General and Home Depot, wrote, in the letter, which was made public Tuesday. “Wearing a mask is not about fear, and it certainly should not reflect one’s politics.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of facial coverings such as masks when it’s difficult to maintain a distance from other people, although there’s no federal order requiring people to do so. 

Mask mandates, however, have increasingly become a debate, drawing criticism and in one instance, threats that led a top local health official in Southern California to resign. Even in states where masks are required when in public, workers are often called upon to enforce the policy in stores, bars and airplanes when customers arrive without them. Some instances have resulted in violence. 

In the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles in May, before California required masks be worn by all residents outside their homes, a Target employee was punched by a customer who refused to wear a mask. The employee fell and broke his left arm, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. At a Dollar Tree in Michigan, a customer wiped his nose on an employee’s shirt after she advised him to wear a mask inside the store. And a security guard at a Family Dollar Store was fatally shot after a dispute broke out when he asked a customer who wasn’t wearing a mask to leave the store.

Many public health and infectious disease experts agree that masks have proven effective at preventing the spread of Covid-19. A statewide mandate is better than a local version because places where masks are required are controlling their outbreaks, and a statewide mandate unifies the messaging about their effectiveness, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, a professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston.

“I’m completely baffled as to why masking became such a political issue and such an ideological issue,” Ostrosky said. “We’ve never had a problem with no shoes, no shirt, no service. We’ve never had a problem with no smoking indoors.” 

Proven to prevent spread

Scientists say the virus can spread through respiratory droplets that pass when an infected person coughs or sneezes and studies suggest face masks may serve as a helpful barrier.

“All politics aside, it’s clear from scientific and safety perspectives that wearing a mask reduces the likelihood of transmission of disease. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, you breathe the same air and you exhale the same air,” said Dr. Betty Chu, associate chief clinical officer and chief quality officer at Henry Ford Health System in Michigan.

“I would say it’s pretty clear from a scientific perspective that wearing a mask reduces the transmission,” she said.

At first, the CDC didn’t advise the use of face masks, but that was before experts understood the extent at which people could spread the virus before the onset of symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. It also wasn’t known that some people who have Covid-19 and show no symptoms could unknowingly spread the virus. 

“The evidence is conclusive that places that do better in masking have lower rates,” Ostrosky said. “And I think we’re experiencing the consequence of ambiguous, unclear messaging about masking.” 

Mask mandates vary

In some cases, states without widespread orders have left the debate for municipalities and businesses to decide, including areas where cases are spiking, like Arizona and Florida.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has maintained that wearing masks would help the state’s economy remain open. He’s urged residents to cover their faces to prevent the spread of Covid-19, even if they felt like it would be an “infringement of freedom.”  But until last week, when hospitals were starting to get hit with a wave of Covid-19 patients, he was reticent to require masks. Even when he did, the statewide mandate includes a large number of exceptions. 

Other states such as Kansas have joined Texas in recent days to issue their own orders. But there are numerous holdouts. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, for example, has strongly opposed such efforts. He told local governments in June that they would not receive any federal money to help fight the effects of the coronavirus pandemic if they implemented mandates.

President Donald Trump’s comments have helped to politicize the debate. In late June,  he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that some Americans might wear face masks not as a way to prevent the spread of coronavirus but as a way to “signal disapproval of him.”

Last week, he said he would have “no problem” wearing a mask in some circumstances, but he continues to say it’s not necessary to make masks mandatory throughout the U.S. 

And that’s likely why businesses are looking to the states for action. 

Dr. Neal Jain, a clinical allergist and immunologist at San Tan Allergy and Asthma and director of research at Arizona Allergy and Immunology Research, was one of over hundreds of doctors in Arizona who signed a petition sent to the governor urging he sign a statewide mask mandate. 

Gov. Doug Ducey initially didn’t allow local jurisdictions to implement their own face covering mandates but reversed that order on June 17. After the change, cities from Phoenix to Tucson adopted mask requirements.

“I think it is a public health 101 mandate that should be in place to protect all of our citizens from the potential ramifications,” said Jain, a member of the Committee to Protect Medicare.

An economic argument

Jan Hatzius, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, has also made an economic argument for face masks after his team examined the link between the use of face masks and controlling Covid-19 cases. Hatzius said a national mandate could prevent lockdown orders and save the economy from taking a hit as businesses shut down. 

Tilman Fertitta, the chairman and CEO of Houston-based restaurant giant Landry’s, touched on this argument as well as he urged U.S. residents to wear masks, saying it’s necessary to keep the economy open. Fertitta, whose business empire includes more than 600 restaurants and Golden Nugget casinos, said wearing a mask is, ultimately, about respect for others. 

“It is so important right now to wear a mask. Our only chance of staying open is the mask,” Fertitta, who also owns the NBA’s Houston Rockets, said on CNBC’s “Power Lunch” in late June. 

Some businesses have tried to stay neutral in the absence of government mandates with mixed results. 

Walmart, requires its employees to wear face coverings but says its optional for customers, although they strongly encourage people to wear them. The company will remind customers whether there are local or statewide mandates requiring masks before entering the store, a spokesperson said. 

Target instituted a similar policy, providing face coverings and gloves to employees on the job. The company has added signage and stationed team members outside stores to remind people to wear masks while shopping in areas where local governments are mandating residents to wear them, a spokesperson said. 

But AMC was forced to reverse course. Initially, the movie theater chain decided that masks would be optional, saying the decision not to require masks was made in an effort to avoid politics, but it was soon met with an “intense and immediate outcry” from customers, AMC CEO Adam Aron said in a statement. It now will require all moviegoers to wear face coverings. 

Lack of federal rules in air travel

The Trump administration last week released a series of guidelines for air travel in the Covid-19 era, saying travelers should wear masks and that airlines should inform travelers when social distancing isn’t possible. But the government stopped short of mandating masks in airports or flights. It also doesn’t require airlines to limit capacity on board and carriers’ policies have differed on that issue.

While there aren’t government mandates, all major U.S. airlines now require that passengers wear face coverings like masks on board, an effort to protect both customers and crews. There are some exceptions for those with medical issues, for very young travelers and when passengers are eating or drinking.

Not all passengers are complying.

A spokeswoman for budget carrier Frontier Airlines said law enforcement removed a passenger on Denver-bound flight before departure from Los Angeles last month for “refusing to comply with crew member instructions, including refusing to wear a face mask.”

American Airlines in June banned a traveler after he refused to wear a mask on board a Dallas/Fort Worth-bound flight from New York last month. He declined to tell CNBC why he didn’t want to wear a mask. American said it would allow him to fly again once masks are no longer required on board.

While travelers are required to follow crew member instructions, some industry members and lawmakers say federal rules would carry more weight than carriers’ own policies. 

Delta Air Lines’ CEO Ed Bastian told Axios in an interview that aired on HBO last month that a government mandate for masks for travelers would make the policy easier to enforce. The largest flight attendant and pilot unions in the U.S. have also called for federal mask requirements for passengers.

“Sadly, the Administration’s guidance is still just that – unenforceable and woefully inadequate recommendations,” said Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) after the Trump administration published its guidelines last week. “We need federally enforceable mandates to keep the traveling public safe.” 

The Department of Transportation cites CDC guidelines.

“The DOT and the [Federal Aviation Administration] expect the traveling public to follow airline crew directions and policies, which are in place for passenger protection and the health of air crews, and to take very seriously the precautions recommended by the CDC and the International Civil Aviation Organization,” the agency said in a statement.

Last month, Delta’s Bastian told staff that the airline would ban travelers who don’t comply with its rule.

“We take the requirement to wear a mask very seriously. Customers who choose not to comply with this or any other safety requirement risk losing their future flight privileges with Delta,” Bastian said an employee memo. “So far, there have thankfully only been a handful of cases, but we have already banned some passengers from future travel on Delta for refusing to wear masks on board.”

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