From Friday 24 July the government introduced new rules for the wearing of face coverings while shopping in the UK:
Face coverings will be mandatory in enclosed public spaces – including shops, supermarkets, shopping centres and transport hubs.
These rules are a blessing for many businesses that can re-open in relative safety, and return to normal business. But some businesses have had to stay open, in one form or another, throughout the entire lock-down: supermarkets and hardware retailers were required to ensure the public remained fed, with running water, gas and electricity while the rest of the country were required to remain indoors.
During this time little clear guidance was provided for shop employees working in these circumstances and the recent decision to make masks mandatory in stores has been welcomed. One retail store manager told me:
“I see the masks in store as a positive yet slightly daunting move as a shopkeeper.
Throughout this [lockdown] the shop worker has had to carry on regardless with little credit to what they do and as a manager in retail for over 30 years I can definitely say this has been my toughest time. I needed to ensure my team’s safety not just physically but probably more important mentally and help them to work through their concerns and worries. This feels like the first time the government or anyone has really took into consideration the shop worker and made it safer for them – this I welcome.
But the daunting bit is around the enforcement of this. We have seen throughout the pandemic there is a small minority of people who have total disregard to social distancing let alone wearing a mask, and unfortunately they have no issues speaking to people in a shop environment like they do not matter.
I will not be asking my team to confront these people if they are like this as I will not have them in danger. The problem it creates is unfortunately it upsets other people in the store who are complying. Most understand we will not confront them, but some get upset at us for that too.
So far it’s not been too bad, let’s hope that continues”
Lack of enforcement from the police and claims of medical exemption have made the rule practically impossible to enforce anyway. The government claimed that those who’re breaking the rules could face a fine of up to £100, and have authorised police to use force to remove customers from shops if they are breaking the rules. However police forces have said that these measures will be a ‘last resort’, and that officers will not be patrolling premises.
This means that employees working in these situations would be bearing the brunt of enforcement and public opinion, whether these rules are enforced or not. The highly politicised nature of the handling of the outbreak has resulted in a wide range of highly vocal opinions about decisions being made.
It must be remembered that some people are genuinely exempt for physical (often hidden) or mental health issues. Some customers with mental health issues are now too frightened to go into shops because they fear being publically criticised for not wearing a face covering. They can display an ‘I Am Exempt’ card but some feel this is an invasion of their privacy.
The lock-down has produced extremely tough circumstances for some key businesses. Other countries have had much clearer and stronger guidance, which appears to have resulted in a quicker return to normal. Here in the England it appears that it will take longer for normality to return and certain members of the public and government share the responsibility.
See here a guide to re-usable face coverings available to buy locally.