The alert went out to Johann Baqueiro: A customer was sipping her Starbucks coffee inside the Ralphs supermarket and she wasn't wearing a face mask.
As a meat department manager, Baqueiro usually is focused on keeping customers happy with just the right cut for that night's dinner. But the other day, Baqueiro found himself once again leaving the meat counter to deal with another barefaced customer.
The Ralphs grocery chain and its Kroger Co. parent last month established a policy requiring all customers to wear masks, as employees already had been doing. Yet at the market in Cypress, Calif., where Baqueiro works, and at a host of other consumer-serving businesses, employees have few options to get recalcitrant customers to comply.
"We asked her, 'Ma'am, would you mind putting on your mask?' " Baqueiro said, hoping that the woman would down her drink outside and then return to finish shopping. "She goes, 'No, I just spent three bucks on this coffee, I'm enjoying it. I'm not going to put on my mask until I'm done with it.' "
Baqueiro said he then watched helplessly as the customer blew on the coffee to cool it, launching potentially virus-laden droplets in his direction.
Several of America's biggest brands have said they are now requiring customers to wear masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But in many cases, the requirements are more like requests, not mandates that will be strictly enforced.
Moreover, the workers who must approach the maskless are often the same front-line clerks who have long been among those most exposed to the virus. And the new duties are amping up their already high stress level.
That's unacceptable, labor leaders say. Even though the CDC and health professionals agree that wearing masks is one of the best tools to fight the pandemic, the coverings have become the centerpiece of yet another highly political culture war.
"To help save lives, every retailer and grocery store across this nation must adopt a mask requirement, and enforcement must be done by trained professionals, not retail workers already stretched thin during this pandemic," said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million members in the grocery, retail, meatpacking, food processing, distillery, cannabis and chemical industries.
"COVID-19 cases will continue to skyrocket across the country until the president, mayors and governors step up and make masks mandatory at every supermarket and retail store," Perrone said. Otherwise, "this deadly pandemic will continue to cost workers' lives, and wreak havoc on our economy."