A dozen more stores across the Golden Isles announced mandatory mask policies for customers over the past week in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Winn-Dixie, Harveys Supermarket, Bed Bath & Beyond, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Office Depot, PetSmart, Goodwill, HomeGoods, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls have announced plans to require customers to wear masks while shopping.
They join a growing list of businesses that want shoppers to adhere to COVID-19 prevention measures recommended by the government and health authorities. Others include Walmart, Sam’s Club, Harris Teeter, CVS Pharmacy, Walgreens, Publix, Starbucks, Verizon and AT&T.
Effective Saturday, Target and Planet Fitness will put similar rules in place. Dollar Tree imposes the requirement in areas where the government mandates mask usage. There is no such mandate in unincorporated Glynn County, but there is in the city of Brunswick.
“I think it’s very much normal at this point,” said Thomas Beusse, executive director of the Georgia Retail Association.
Adaptation is the name of the game for face-to-face businesses, Beusse explained. Early on, retailers were in a hurry to figure out how to continue operating while keeping customers and employees safe.
The first months of the COVID-19 outbreak were quite “hectic,” he said, as materials like masks and gloves were in short supply.
“Everyone got hit with a ton of information. In living memory, no one in the U.S. in any industry has had to deal with this,” Beusse said. “If something were to happen like this in the future, our guys in the retail sector are going to be more used to dealing with it.”
Some standard practices have risen to the top of the sea of information, Beusse said, like social distancing signage and floor markets, hand sanitizer stations, extra cleaning measures, plexiglass sneeze guards and, as is becoming more popular, mask-wearing requirements.
Looking at industry trends, Beusse said some aspects of the retail business will likely change for good. Curbside pickup, online shopping and home delivery were on the upswing before the outbreak, but now more and more businesses are adopting the services as a means to socially distance.
The retail association, along with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, is working to spread the word via a safety pledge, which can be signed at georgia.org/safetypromise.
“I don’t think I’ve been in one that isn’t at least encouraging people to wear masks and distance,” Beusse said.
The issue has become something of a contentious issue for those who don’t want to wear face coverings or find it uncomfortable to do so.
So far, Gov. Brian Kemp has avoided issuing a statewide mandate on face coverings, but that hasn’t stopped local governments from trying. Brunswick, Atlanta, Savannah, Athens and more have issued orders for the public to don masks, but Kemp has stated that they are not legally valid.
“Mandates are only as good as they’re enforced,” Beusse said. “Would we welcome a mask mandate? Sure, but we also encourage people to do the right thing.”
That lack of state-backed authority puts those who would otherwise fall in line into a complicated situation.
“Without any local or state regulations requiring them, we’re in a weird spot,” said Bo Mann, owner of Wake Up Coffee. “We’re asking people to. We’re making our staff wear them, though we don’t have to.”
Both the Brunswick and St. Simons Island coffee shops have reduced operations to takeout only. Most who come through are cooperative, he said. They wear a mask, keep their distance, take their order and leave.
“There have been a few that are trying to push the issue a little by lingering longer than they should,” Mann said.
Many businesses are dealing with that attitude. Some have perfectly reasonable objections to wearing a mask, and most governments and businesses make accommodations for them, Beusse said.
“I think it’s working out OK, but you’re always going to have some folks who don’t want to abide by the rules for the sake of not abiding by the rules,” Beusse said. “We all know that people are tired and stressed and we’re trying to be sensitive to that, but each store is handling it differently.”
But ultimately, business is about the customers, Mann said. While everyone should do what they can to keep others safe, he wanted Wake Up to be a welcoming place for everyone in the community.
“Everyone has a right to be concerned (about COVID-19),” he continued. “They have just as much a right to not be concerned. We would prefer you wear (a mask), but there’s really nothing we can do to force you.”