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Retailers, grocers: Requiring businesses to enforce mask mandate inappropriate, unsafe

Retailers, grocers: Requiring businesses to enforce mask mandate inappropriate, unsafe

Retail and grocery advocates are struggling with Governor Jay Inslee’s impending mask mandate for public spaces that is due to start next week – a mandate to be enforced by employers and their workers.

Industry representatives say the mandate creates an inappropriate relationship between the state and businesses and opens a variety of potential legal and financial liabilities.

Washington Retail Association Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Mark Johnson told Lens that “my members are not excited about enforcing any mask mandates. They’re not trained to be enforcers, so it’s really unfortunate that they’d like us to do it.”

The burden of enforcing Inslee’s emergency proclamation fell on businesses last year in July after numerous police agencies, including the Washington State Patrol, said they would not issue citations to anyone found not complying with the governor’s order to wear a mask in public. Inslee then announced that businesses could not serve a customer who was not wearing a mask – and the business would risk losing its license if it did not comply. By October, the state had fined 11 businesses for not enforcing the mandate, with some penalties as high as $7,500.

“It is extremely unfair of the state and unjust for them to require business to effectively enforce the governor’s mandate,” Washington Policy Center Small Business Director Mark Harmsworth said. “I think it’s very divisive.”

Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA) CEO and President Tammie Hetrick said the latest mask rule, as with the prior order, inappropriately shifts the responsibility of the state onto businesses. “I have a concern anytime we are asking any industry employees to enforce something that the government entities won’t enforce. They’re asking us to enforce a mask mandate, but we don’t necessarily have any recourse if someone refuses.”

At a time when the state has placed new restrictions on trained police officers, Hetrick says it’s bizarre that ordinary workers are expected to enforce the law but lack any enforcement authority.

“These are people who have been hired to provide customer service,” she said. “They weren’t hired to do security. They weren’t hired to do crime prevention. That’s not their job. It’s not a fair safety issue for any worker. It’s not just grocery. This is not just a grocery issue. This is a customer service…. that’s not their job.”

She added that the mandate also comes at a time when employers in general are struggling to hire necessary staff. In Spokane, David’s Pizza announced it will be closed on Sundays for the first time in 26 years due to a lack of employees.

“Many of our store aren’t open the same hours,” Hetrick said. When you do (open), there are way fewer people working. We can’t afford to have someone standing in the door. It’s not even reasonable. Businesses finally have to get to a point where they say ‘Yeah we want to help, but we also don’t have any way to protect our employees, to protect the public, if we don’t have any enforcement support.’”

Harmsworth said one recourse for businesses is to report an unmasked customer to the police for trespassing. However, Hetrick said some of her members have already had trouble getting local law enforcement to respond to calls.

Calling the police also creates the potential for a physical altercation with a customer, which could cost the store more than what the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) might fine them.  

“I can’t see stores, particularly small stores, doing it,” Harmsworth said. “They’re just going to say ‘I’d rather you didn’t (enter without a mask), but I can’t stop it.’”

Industries are currently seeking guidance from L&I on compliance with the new mandate. Johnson said his organization received guidelines with the prior mandate, in which employers were expected to inform customers of the mandate but not directly enforce it by removing them from the premises or cause further escalation.

“If that’s (still) the case, that’s what we’ll do,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to get fined.”

At the same time, Hetrick said there’s been a lack of clarity regarding the legal obligations of businesses and workers when enforcing the mandate. “What liability does this open up when you’re telling people if they don’t enforce this they’re going to be fired? That is how a lot of people understood the messaging that they received from governor.”

While they wait for L&I to issue guidance, Hetrick said that litigation isn’t off the table if the mandate is perceived as creating an unsafe work environment for workers. “There’s no way we’re going to put them (workers) at risk. That’s how they (employers) feel. They care about their employees. This is not something they should be doing.”

Inslee’s mask mandate takes effect Aug. 23.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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