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Clark County grocery stores grapple with mask rules

Supermarkets’ enforcement of mandate mixed

By Will Campbell, Columbian Associate Editor
Published: July 15, 2020, 6:05am

It’s been just over a week since Gov. Jay Inslee mandated the use of face masks in businesses, including grocery stores, which had been criticized for both enforcing mask rules strictly or not enforcing them strictly enough.

Every day, at virtually every Clark County grocery store, people try to walk in without masks. Depending on the store, they are either turned away, given a free mask — or allowed to go in undisturbed.

Chuck’s Produce & Street Market is one of the more strict stores, with staff stationed out front to prevent people from going in without masks. Other stores, including Fred Meyer, weren’t stationing staff at the entrances as of Tuesday, allowing some to walk in without masks.

Meanwhile, there’s little evidence the Department of Labor & Industries is enforcing masking rules for grocery stores and other businesses. L&I did not respond to The Columbian for a request for comment.

Daniel Clay, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 555, said he’s observed and received reports that people are still walking around in almost all grocery stores without masks.

“It’s universal,” he said.

Inslee’s orders do allow some wiggle room with the mandate: People with medical conditions or disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask are exempt from the rule.

Per the state’s orders, grocery store staff stationed outside stores are advised to politely ask nonmasked people if they have a condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. Employees are not allowed to ask details about the condition or request proof of it, according to the state’s orders.

In such cases, stores are “encouraged to offer some kind of accommodation for the customer such as curbside pickup, delivery or a scheduled appointment when physical distancing can be ensured. But there’s no law that requires stores to enforce the mask rule any further.

Stephanie Wright, marketing manager for Chuck’s, said the store began requiring masks the day Inslee imposed the rule.

“We’re doing what we can to follow the guidelines,” she said. “We’re trying to give our customers the best experiences.”

A small minority of people are refusing to wear masks and being turned away from places like Chucks, Wright said. But all grocery stores in Clark County have posted signs that state shoppers are required to wear masks.

“Thankfully, most customers have been great about doing the right thing and wearing them,” wrote Jill McGinnis, director of communications and public affairs for Safeway and Albertsons. “In addition to our customers, our employees and vendors are also required to wear masks.”

Clay said that the union is still pushing for grocery stores to do more enforcement of the mask rule.

“They’re not doing as good as I’d like them to be doing,” he said.

In a public statement written in response to Facebook comment criticism of Fred Meyer’s mask enforcement rules, the company stated: “In locations where masks are mandated, we support the local ordinance and are making every reasonable effort to encourage compliance.”

In addition to requiring staff to wear masks, Fred Meyer stores “request all customers to wear a mask while shopping in our stores — or alternatively use our e-commerce services like pickup or delivery.”

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The store also uses door signs, in-store radio, floor decals and protective partitions at every check-out lane to further promote physical distancing, according to the statement.

A spokesperson from Fred Meyer did not reply to The Columbian for a request for comment.

On most grocery stores’ Facebook pages, it’s not hard to find people who scorn the stores for not allowing people inside, calling it discrimination. Conversely, there are other shoppers who criticize the stores for not enforcing the rules and putting workers and shoppers in danger.

Clay urged shoppers to wear masks to make workers at the grocery stores and shoppers safe.

“I really think the community needs to have the same level of decency,” Clay said. “We are really, really concerned that people aren’t taking this as seriously as we’d hoped.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Chuck’s Produce & Street Market allowed people without masks into the store under special circumstances.