Metro Atlanta stores apply soft touch on mask mandates, with success

Few signs of culture war as most shoppers cover mouths
Stephen Russell, a customer at a Home Depot in Lilburn, said he likes the idea of local retailers now requiring customers to wear masks in stores during the coronavirus pandemic. He questioned, though, why they don't try harder to enforce their new rules. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

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Stephen Russell, a customer at a Home Depot in Lilburn, said he likes the idea of local retailers now requiring customers to wear masks in stores during the coronavirus pandemic. He questioned, though, why they don't try harder to enforce their new rules. MATT KEMPNER / AJC

Credit: Matt Kempner

Many of metro Atlanta’s biggest retailers now say they require shoppers to wear masks, and more start such mandates today.

Enforcement appears minimal — and yet the gentle approach is mostly working.

An average of 93% of shoppers at stores with mandates wore face coverings during spot checks this week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The informal checks were made of 100 shoppers at each of five stores in Gwinnett County, including a Publix, Kroger, Walmart and two Home Depots.

Three weeks ago — prior to some local store mask requirements — 80% of shoppers had on face coverings during AJC visits at Kroger stores around metro Atlanta.

If masks once looked like another excuse for a culture war, few locally appear to be bothering to fight it.

Even some of those not wearing masks inside stores this week chalked it up to momentary forgetfulness rather than resistance.

“I think a lot of us are just not used to it, and every day is a reminder to put it on,” said Ronald Bine, a 46-year-old music executive who was in a Kroger in Duluth without a mask.

He said he only remembered after he was deep in the grocery. He’s glad the requirements are quickly expanding, but wishes more stores had staffers reinforcing it to people who miss newly posted signs.

Public health experts say wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing are crucial to protect others and curb the coronavirus pandemic, which has battered the U.S. economy.

Government leaders in Georgia have bickered over whether to more broadly mandate mask use. But following a surge in COVID-19 cases, retailers moved to require them on private property.

Kroger, Publix, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, CVS, Walgreens and Kohl’s recently launched nationwide mask mandates in their stores. Similar mandates go into effect today at Target, McDonald’s, Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and others.

Credit: Matt Kempner

Credit: Matt Kempner

To get compliance, most retailers rely on prominent signs at entrances and regular loudspeaker announcements, rather than having staffers confront shoppers. Customers who didn’t have on masks said they weren’t turned away and in most cases no one said anything to them about it.

There are holdouts, to be sure. David Savick said no one at a Walmart in Duluth confronted him about not wearing a mask as he shopped and that he may not shop at retailers who enforce such rules.

“This is America,” the 54-year-old piano refinisher said, adding later, “I don’t want anybody telling me I have to.”

He did say, though, that he takes care to social distance.

The Walmart usually had a worker stationed outside the front entrance to point out the mask policy to customers. But staffers said they don’t try to block customers who refuse to comply.

Still, a little extra encouragement seems to have an impact.

Consider the scene Thursday afternoon at two Home Depots in Gwinnett County. At one in Lilburn, big signs at doorways reminded customers to put on masks. But no workers were spotted offering reminders to people who weren’t covering up. During an AJC reporter’s visit, 87% of shoppers were seen with masks on.

At a Lawrenceville Home Depot, only two of the first 100 shoppers spotted weren’t wearing a face covering. One likely reason for the 98% mask use: A staffer was stationed near an entrance, politely offering complimentary masks.

Still, Stephon King went a different route. The 38-year-old painter and U.S. Air Force veteran accepted the plastic-wrapped mask, but only held it in his hand as he walked the aisles. He said he has had a mask on before and found it made breathing uncomfortable. Plus, he said, he thinks some of the dangers of COVID-19 are overstated, though he doesn’t dispute that it can kill some people. For himself, he said, “I leave it to God.”

Home Depot spokeswoman Margaret Smith said the chain has “social distancing captains who will remind customers that they must wear a mask or facial covering. Our associates will offer masks to those who don’t have one, but it’s too dangerous to forcibly or physically deny entry. That said, if a customer becomes combative or habitually refuses to comply, we’ll take further action to prevent them from entering our stores.”

Kroger spokeswoman Christine Backus wrote that the company has “a responsibility to help keep our associates, customers and communities safe” and is “making every reasonable effort to encourage compliance, including distributing free masks to customers who do not have one.”

And Walmart emailed that while the vast majority of its customers are wearing masks, if one doesn’t, “our Health Ambassadors notify a member of management, who will talk to the customer and try to find a solution. We are also working with customers who are unable to wear a face covering due to medical reasons or religious beliefs.”

Some customers think retailers should push the issue more with customers who walk around others unmasked.

“I thought it was kind of odd,” said Stephen Russell, who works in a hospital as a radiologic technologist and was shopping at the Home Depot in Lilburn. “I was surprised by them letting them in the building.”

Credit: Matt Kempner

Credit: Matt Kempner

Some malls and retailers have tried another option: adding contracted security personnel to check customers for masks or take their temperatures, said Thomas Givens, chief operating officer of Atlanta-based SecurAmerica, a security provider.

“I assume they don’t want the confrontation to be between their employee and the customers,” Givens said of retailers.

So far, he said, he isn’t aware of any mask situations that have turned violent for his personnel. But he said that’s always a possibility. “Let’s face it, some people feel strongly about not wearing a mask.”

One grocery store manager in metro Atlanta said when the store’s mandate was announced, a small number of customers complained to him. One called him a communist.

Still, some mask holdouts are wavering.

At a Publix in Duluth, Brandon Deane had a mask in his bag, but the 24-year-old didn’t put it on, though a 21-year-old family member was wearing one beside him. On a quick trip, he said, “I didn’t feel it was super necessary.”

But he had second thoughts. He believes it helps fight transmission of the virus to others. And, his mom wants him to cover up. “I should wear it more for sure,” he said.

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