Biden’s National Mandate to Encourage Face Masks in Stores Is Welcome News for Retail — But Probably Won’t Help Much

Shortly after he took the oath of office, President Joe Biden moved swiftly to fight the COVID-19 pandemic with a flurry of executive orders — one of which involved encouraging the use of face masks in public spaces. And while some businesses appear to be breathing a sigh of relief, experts predict that it might not be of much help to retail.

Yesterday, the newly-elected president made it a requirement for federal employees, on-site contractors and others stepping on federal grounds to wear masks, maintain physical distance and adhere to other guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to work with state and local officials, as well as business, academic and community leaders, “with the goal of maximizing public compliance with, and addressing any obstacles to, mask-wearing and other public health best practices identified by the CDC.”

The move was applauded by a number of trade groups — including the American Apparel and Footwear Association, National Retail Federation and Retail Industry Leaders Association — as well as several retailers, from Amazon to Old Navy. With a national face mask mandate, insiders suggest that retail workers — some of whom are among the lowest-paid employees in the country — might no longer have to be responsible for kicking out unmasked customers, who can also leave them vulnerable to infection upon close contact.

“There are, in general, more government mandates than there were in the early days of the pandemic, which does relieve some of the pressure on the retailer as the ‘bad guy’ if someone takes exception to a mask rule,” said Nikki Baird, VP of retail innovation at retail technology provider Aptos. “In that sense, having a coherent set of guidelines at the federal level might make it a little easier for retailers to take a stand for masks.”

As for whether a national face mask mandate will drive consumers back to stores in droves, uncertainty still remains. Amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, several states and localities have been forced to reinstate lockdowns and restrictions on nonessential businesses. Some of these mandates have led to tighter caps on occupancy, depending on the shopping space.

“Sure, a [national face mask mandate] could improve foot traffic, but the fact of the matter is that most retailers are currently operating with capacity restraints, and shoppers aren’t free to just come and go,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder and CEO of retail consultancy A Line Partners. “Once those restrictions are lifted, it’ll be a different story, but I think it’s going to happen slower than we might anticipate. There’s not going to be this massive rush to stores.”

Plus, that’s not to say all customers will be amenable to the mandate. In major metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and New York, residents — due to government-imposed executive orders — were early to adopt the coverings as a safety precautions. But in other states, particularly some areas in the South and the Northwest, the percentage of people who say they wear a face mask most or all of the time still remains lower compared the rest of the country.

“We’re just shy of a year of the pandemic having occurred in the U.S. It takes some period for new habits to settle because humans don’t like change and being told what to do,” said Jessica Ramirez, retail research analyst at investment research firm Jane Hali & Associates. “It’s sort of natural for people to lash out, but it is a health issue. With time, it will be adopted — and it could even give a sales uptick to retailers who bring face masks into their assortments.”

For nearly a year, many store managers and employees have carried the burden of enforcing such face mask regulations and had to take matters into their own hands — leading some customers to react angrily or in some cases violently.

In July, for instance, a video captured by bystanders at a Skechers store in Oklahoma City, Okla., showed a woman throwing two boxes of shoes at workers after they requested that she wear a face mask. What’s worse, and in one of the most devastating examples, a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Mich., was fatally shot in May after a verbal altercation ensued when he told a customer she was required to wear a face mask while shopping.

Also back in July, Foot Locker made headlines when it opted against the face mask requirement. In an interview, CEO Dick Johnson explained at the time that “masks have become a political issue, not a health issue,” and that he was “not willing to put [his employees] at risk” following the troubling accounts of other retailers whose workers had been injured during attempts to enforce a mandatory face mask policy.

“At this point in the pandemic, the battles with consumers have already been fought,” Baird added, “and federal requirements don’t change anything for retailers other than encouraging states and counties to be more consistent.”

For some retailers, though, that consistency could mean higher retention rates; some employees who are pressured to do the enforcing themselves might feel like they’re not getting enough support and, in some cases, quit. For customers, on the other hand, it could mean the difference between returning to stores or eschewing brick and mortar for a more comfortable shopping experience online.

“Nowadays, it’s about feeling safe,” explained Farla Efros, president at retail consultancy HRC Advisory. “If wearing a mask is going to ease the transmission and allow us to return to browsing and shopping in physical stores — which is much needed — then it is a must.”

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