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Retail workers fear for their safety: 'An anxiety attack waiting to happen'

By Suhauna Hussain, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LOS ANGELES — Black Friday leaves Andrea Hernandez breathless.

She's worked the day after Thanksgiving at a mall shoe store in Los Angeles the last three years, spending her shift running back and forth, hauling sneakers from the stockroom to the waiting feet of customers — and trying to keep her cool when someone inevitably yells at her for disappearing too long.

For retail workers, Black Friday is, as Hernandez puts it, the "most dreaded day of the year." But this year, the day they hate has also become one they fear.

With coronavirus infections rising across much of the United States, what is historically one of America's busiest shopping days brings real risk. Some regions have established occupancy restrictions, including California, where the average number of new coronavirus cases has tripled in the last month alone. But even here, where safety rules are more stringent than in many states, workers are bracing for a high volume of shoppers and the danger that comes with the traffic.

With the virus infecting more Californians every day than at any previous point this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom pulled the "emergency brake," rolling out new restrictions last week ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. Vast swaths of the state now fall in the strictest "purple tier" of the state's reopening plan. The rules allow retail stores and indoor malls in these counties to open, but with capacity limited to 25%. Additional regulations cutting occupancy to 20% in nonessential retail stores could soon come to Los Angeles County, where officials on Tuesday began to outline a new "Safer at Home" order, as daily coronavirus infections surge to record levels.

Similar tightening of rules is happening in other states, including Nevada and New York. North Carolina's governor strengthened mask-wearing rules but did not tighten occupancy limits on businesses. In Utah, where a statewide mask mandate was implemented in response to a surge of cases this month, the governor relaxed restrictions on social gatherings just before Thanksgiving. Elsewhere, the holiday season is business as usual. Florida and Georgia long ago lifted statewide restrictions on businesses meant to limit the spread of coronavirus and do not require mask-wearing.

 

Retail experts have said stores shouldn't expect the mass crowds they usually see on Black Friday. The draw of the frantic shopping day has diminished over the years, as e-commerce has grown. And with coronavirus cases increasing more people will probably turn to online retailers. But that doesn't mean stores won't see a rise in customers Friday. Workers say they've already seen an uptick in the number of shoppers as the holiday season approaches.

Some major retailers have introduced their own safety measures for the holiday season. Target, for example, implemented contactless self-checkout, doubled the number of parking spots for its curbside pickup service and spread its Black Friday deals throughout November to discourage crowding, spokesperson Jake Anderson said in an email.

But workers worry it won't be enough to protect them.

Angel Ponce, 22, has taken to wearing two masks, one layered on top of the other, because it makes him feel safer working the electronics department at a Target in Van Nuys. In an attempt to stem the flow of customers, he said he repeatedly tells shoppers the holiday deals have already rolled out online and will still be available after Black Friday.

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