Starting today, May 6, Denver grocery store staffers will be expected to enforce a new requirement that all customers wear masks while shopping.
"This is about those of us who care enough about humanity and enough about each other to comply, and it’s pretty easy to comply with a shirt, a bandanna, something that covers your nose, something that covers your mouth. It’s a symbolic gesture to your neighbor that you care about them enough to wear a mask, and that’s what we’re asking everyone to do," Mayor Michael Hancock said during a May 5 press conference explaining Denver's phased reopening after the stay-at-home order is lifted.
Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, approves of the move to require customers to wear masks, especially given the fact that grocery-store workers have been on the front lines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I really applaud the mayor for looking after all of the citizens' safety," Cordova says.
But stakeholders in the grocery-store industry are wondering how far employees will have to go to enforce the requirement.
"The companies have these policies where the customers are always right, and, of course, our members are really concerned about their safety," Cordova adds. While Governor Jared Polis has recommended that masks be worn in all grocery stores by customers, it's not a rule.
In Denver, it will be.
The city's public-health order that created the mask mandate requires grocery stores to "take reasonable measures, such as posting signs, to remind their customers and the public of the requirement that they wear a Face Covering while inside of or waiting in line to enter the business."
Additionally, businesses "performing Critical Government Functions," such as grocery stores, "must take all reasonable steps to prohibit any member of the public who is not wearing a Face Covering from entering and, if those efforts are unsuccessful, must not serve that person and must seek to remove that person," according to the Denver order.
How the store will do that remains undetermined, and that concerns Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council.
"It’s not so much the order of a mask; it’s asking the retailers to enforce it," says Howes. "It’s already a stressful environment."
Howes points to the recent tragedy in Flint, Michigan, where a security guard was shot and killed outside a Dollar Tree store following an argument over a customer's refusal to wear a face mask, according to law enforcement.
While nothing that drastic has occurred in Colorado, Cordova says that members of her union, which represents approximately 17,000 grocery-store workers across the state, have already had to deal with "customers becoming very violent or abusive...especially when the toilet paper ran out and supplies were short."
"We are asking businesses to ensure that folks come into their stores as customers are complying with the order, but we also understand that we don’t want them getting into confrontations in their place of business," Kristin Bronson, the Denver City Attorney, said at the May 5 press conference.
To prevent confrontations, Cordova suggests, "I think that the companies should get the National Guard or additional armed security, like off-duty police officers, to help monitor these customers — not only for the masks, but also for the social distancing."
The city has no plans to add security, though; officials say the aim is to educate people so that they comply, rather than take a more heavy-handed approach with customers.
Howes believes that stores in his organization will be "making good faith efforts to comply the best they can by informing customers of the city's order, without risking altercations." If things turn physical, then employees will call the police.
But Denver hopes it doesn't get to that level. "People will need to take the face covering order seriously, as they did with the stay-at-home order," says Heather Burke, a city spokesperson. "City agencies will be involved with enforcement, with the goal of 100 percent compliance and keeping everyone safe."