Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
Posted August 5, 2020

Customers refusing to wear masks: keeping front-line workers safe

Wearing a face covering is recommended by national public health authorities, but not everyone is following the guidance. Find out what to do when this happens in your workplace.
Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
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Customers refusing to wear masks: keeping front-line workers safe
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States are slowly reopening businesses around the country. Employers are working hard to keep their customers and employees safe from possible exposure to COVID-19 by following the recommended public health guidelines.

But what happens when customers outright refuse to follow these prevention and safety measures — namely, wearing a face mask when they enter a business?

Wearing a face covering is recommended by public health officials as a primary way to reduce the spread of the COVID-19. With all 50 states mandating some sort of mask policy — and dozens of retail chains requiring them to be worn — front-line workers have become the de facto enforcer of #Coronavirus safety measures. And, when customers refuse to wear masks, workers across the country have found themselves in awkward, precarious, and sometimes dangerous situations ranging everything from customers spitting on them, using foul language, and other aggressions.

What should employers and workers do to protect themselves?

A face covering policy that everyone follows consistently

Under the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), employers have a general duty to provide a safe workplace for employees. “There needs to be a clear and concise policy adopted” explains Ryan Kearney, General Counsel at Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “And all employees need to be aware of this policy and adhere to it — even a part-time, front-line employee who only works two days a week.” Once a policy is in place for preventing and, if needed, reporting aggressive interactions, a business should spend significant time training its employees, especially those most likely to interact with customers.

“Training is crucial for employees so they’re able to confidently and safely address situations if they occur,” said Kearney. “Sending a consistent message is important. If a customer comes in one day and doesn’t have to wear a mask, but then returns the following week and is told by an employee they need to wear one, there’s suddenly confusion and the customer may react negatively.”

Tip for workers: know your employer's policy on face masks in the workplace

When it doubt, ask. Some employers, especially smaller businesses, may not have a formal training program. But the bottom line is that you, as a front-line worker, should feel comfortable knowing how to handle the situation.

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs

Employers should utilize signage outside their stores, making it clear to customers what their policies are. “Consistent messaging on signage and notifications is crucial to help empower front-line workers,” said Kearney. By doing this, workers have the ability to easily refer to guidelines that support mask-wearing if they’re questioned by customers.

Tip for workers: ask for cooperation rather than demand customers to conform

These are new rules - and like forgetting to bring a reusable grocery bag, sometimes people simply forget to cover up. Don't take it as a personal affront if someone is not complying. There are medical conditions that make wearing a mask difficult, or present other health risks to the wearer.

Work with customers who do not or cannot wear a mask to find alternate options that keep everyone safe and keeps the business going. Discuss these options with your employer, like curbside pickup instead of in-store shopping, or additional space while those individuals are inside.

The importance of listening and reading situational queues

Approaching a customer who is not wearing a mask can be intimidating - and the anxiety that the encounter could potentially turn confrontational makes this especially challenging. What can you do to minimize a possible situation if it seems like a customer is becoming hostile?

  • Avoid arguing with customers
  • Do not physically block a customer from entering your workplace
  • Stay calm, remember to breathe (and yes, this isn't always easy)
  • Listen intently, and show understanding

“It’s imperative to avoid a confrontation from happening in the first place,” said Kearney. “Always treat people with dignity,” said Kearney. “And listen to what the customer says to you. Having empathy is key here — there may be a reason why the customer chose to not wear a mask.”

For their own safety, workers should be aware of body language and signs of rising tension with a customer. Be aware of how a person’s voice sounds — a tight, clenched-jaw could be an indication of rising frustration. Pointing fingers, hands-on hips, and getting too close to someone else's face are other signals of an escalating issue.

Ask for help if the situation escalates

If you have a situation that has escalated and the customer refuses to comply, get help from a manager. It’s not up to the worker to de-escalate an aggressive situation. Kearney states “There’s no excuse the employee should be by themselves to handle the situation. Workers should not be expected to be subjected to violence at any level. At that point, law enforcement needs to step handle the situation.”

Employers should never put workers in the dangerous position of an escalating confrontation, or expect employees to enforce mask policies, but recently this issue has become complicated. What about the famous business motto, “the customer is always right”? “Safety is non-negotiable,” said Kearney. “When a customer’s actions place the business and others at risk, the customer is no longer right.”


What do you think about face covering policies? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
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robert lawhon

So I was at the grocery store the other day and a younger employee (probably a high school age teen) asked the man in front of me very politely to put a mask on per Governor's mandate. The customer said "I ain't wearing no damn mask." The teen responded with, "I don't make enough money to deal with this. Do what you want sir." I understand that masks are inconvenient and uncomfortable, but if you can protect yourself and others from a deadly infectious disease by wearing a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth, why wouldn't you do that?

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Barbara Jacobs

While all of you are judging those not wearing a mask and actually telling them they don't care about others because they don't have a mask on..just STOP IT!! Some of us are unable tolerate wearing a mask. It has nothing to do with not caring about others or rebellion. It is due to medical conditions-you are not aware of. Be more considerate of ALL others, mask or no mask. You do not know the circumstances of why that person is not wearing a mask.

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Barbara Jacobs

While all of you are judging those not wearing a mask and actually telling them they don't care about others because they don't have a mask on..just STOP IT!! Some of us are unable tolerate wearing a mask. It has nothing to do with not caring about others or rebellion. It is due to medical conditions-you are not aware of. Be more considerate of ALL others, mask or no mask. You do not know the circumstances of why that person is not wearing a mask.

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Lisa Henschen

It's all about mutual respect for each other. I wear a mask when I'm not staying safe at home, and pray others will do the same. In this way we keep each other safe as well as the workers who are exposed for many hours at a time. As for people with a condition and can't wear a mask, they should have a community license procured by getting a medical prescription.

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Cynthia Levesque

I am 67, my husband is 74. I have both a heart and lung issue and am the survivor of cancer 3 times. I have a difficult time with wearing a mask, but every time I go into a store, I make sure that I have my mask on. I am protecting myself and my husband at the same time. I'm not sure that the mask is helping me steer clear of the Covid-19, but I'm not willing to take the chance that it isn't. As a matter of fact, I had a job interview set up but had to cancel it because the two I would be meeting with were not going to wear masks. And you know how difficult it is for someone of my age to get an interview request!! I say wear the mask (just like you have to wear shoes and a shirt inside a store)!!!

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Kathryn Schmitt

W here I live face masks are required in every store I patronize. If you don't want to comply stay at home. No one has the right to put anyone else in danger. It is the equivolent of holding a weapon in public.

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Dwight Gaylor

just wear a mask, some feel its not helping, which that maybe the case, but i think even for second it can, i would much rather not make a fellow human sick, human life is of most high regard, for me id rather not take a chance, so ill just wear a mask

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John Craig jr.

Wearing a mask in public just helps keep you safe.My problem is people asking you for a item and you cannot hear what they are saying(Hard of Hearing).

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Brad Redfering

When everyone’s ready to take a break from guzzling the Kool-Aid, let’s all celebrate the apparent fact that no one died from the flu virus in 2020 ... 👏🏻🎉👏🏻

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Gina Lopez

If someone's scared of being around others who are not wearing a face/nose covering, maybe they should stay home and let the healthy ones go about their business. Check out TheHealthyAmerican.org website to learn about FACTS and LAWS.

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