The uneasy case for face masks and enforced wearing

In the UK last November, the most frequent locations people with the COVID-19 virus had been prior to testing positive was supermarkets.

Two months on, that may still be the case.

It makes sense, then, that if you are going to a supermarket, you wear a face mask for your own protection as well as that of everyone else. Unless you have valid exemption, wearing a face mask when in an enclosed public place like a supermarket is also the law now.

It seems straightforward enough, right? But it’s not as a flood of comments I saw yesterday and today from people in different parts of the country makes clear.

Those comments highlight a broad issue that’s becoming one of some concern – some people not wearing face masks and the difficulties that arise when they’re asked to put one on, especially in supermarkets.

In my experience, the supermarkets have been doing a good job communicating with customers what they’re doing with regard to making their stores safer places to visit. Regular email sent under CEOs’ names have focused on key things such as wearing masks and social distancing.

Yesterday, I received an email from the CEO of Sainsbury’s, one of the top ten supermarkets, outlining two issues he wants shoppers to pay attention to regarding compliance with lockdown rules. I especially like the point he made about posting security guards at store entrances who will “challenge customers who are not wearing masks or who are shopping in groups.”

I tweeted about his email:

I wasn’t surprised to see some tweet sharing: it’s a topical issue. But I was surprised by the number of comments to my tweet with additional opinion about face masks and supermarkets, many highlighting the commenters’ own experiences, and some highly critical of supermarkets and shoppers alike.

One commenter pointed out that this ought to apply to store employees as well:

A comment from a tweeter (who might be an employee of Asda, another top ten supermarket), cited an Asda experience where shoppers make little effort to observe the rules:

A topic that had a few people commenting on concerned being exempt from wearing a face mask and being challenged about it. This mask-exempt commenter also has to take his kids shopping, he says, with added difficulty:

But some commenters had little patience for mask exemptions:

It’s not so simple, say other commenters:

This single mum speaks of how she feels being challenged in front of her children.

A small business owner added her thoughts about her not so good experiences:

This commenter wants more action on groups of shoppers:

And this from an NHS nurse:

And this, illustrating how uneven things are:

Many more commenters shared their thoughts on the bigger picture of food shopping, wearing face masks and security enforcement. You can see them all in the comments thread.

Today there’s coverage in much of the mainstream media about further measures announced by four of the top ten supermarkets to not allow people to come in to stores who don’t wear a face mask; and to deploy security guards to focus on a reality of this current situation:

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Sadly, (enforcing mask rules) has led to a sharp rise in incidents of violence and abuse against shop workers, which is why it is essential police support the work being done by retailers.”

We are less than two weeks in to the current lockdown, with the expectation that this will continue at least for another month.

Nobody has all the answers or can promise all the solutions. But I hope that public spiritedness, common sense, and a willingness to work together for the common good will succeed in the coming weeks that, by some accounts, will be the toughest yet in battling this pandemic.

Otherwise, we really will be at the precipice.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.