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COVID-19: Why King Soopers Isn't Making Workers Wear Masks

A screen capture from a current Kroger commercial shows a checker wearing a hair wrap that could easily be converted into a cloth face covering.EXPAND
A screen capture from a current Kroger commercial shows a checker wearing a hair wrap that could easily be converted into a cloth face covering.
Photo by Michael Roberts

Editor's note: At a 4 p.m. April 17 press conference, hours after the publication of this post, Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced an executive order requiring grocery workers interacting with customers to wear masks on the job. Learn more from our post "COVID-19: Unmasked Grocery Staffs Now Breaking Colorado Law." Continue for our previous coverage.

Among the commercials now airing on Denver television that have been adapted for the COVID-19 crisis is a spot for the Kroger family of brands, including King Soopers, that salutes its workers for their brave work during the pandemic.

Yet none of the many employees spotlighted on-screen wears a mask — not even the checker above, whose hair wrap could easily be converted into the kind of cloth face covering that Colorado Governor Jared Polis has urged all state residents to wear whenever they leave the house, and especially when they go shopping.

The absence of employees wearing masks is notable at local King Soopers outlets. During our recent visits to stores in the metro area, fewer than half of the staffers we've seen have been wearing masks, and not many more are wearing gloves.

This situation is hardly exclusive to King Soopers stores, but other major retailers in metro Denver, including Trader Joe's, have instituted the kind of mask-wearing culture for which Polis has advocated. It's not an official mandate, however. According to Heather Burke, a spokesperson for Denver's Joint Information Center, which is coordinating responses to the COVID-19 crisis, "Wearing masks is still a recommendation — not a mandate at the state and local level. Also, wearing gloves should not be used in place of hand-washing."

While companies can order employees to wear masks and gloves, Kroger is not. Instead, Jessica Trowbridge, spokesperson for the firm's King Soopers/City Market division covering Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, writes in an email: "We are encouraging our associates to wear protective masks and gloves."

Operative word: "encouraging."

Another screen capture from the current Kroger commercial shows what appears to be an unmasked worker in the deli, where masks are frequently worn by men with beards.EXPAND
Another screen capture from the current Kroger commercial shows what appears to be an unmasked worker in the deli, where masks are frequently worn by men with beards.
Photo by Michael Roberts

As Polis and other officials have stressed, grocery workers are on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak, and they've suffered casualties. On April 12, the Washington Post reported that at least 41 such employees have died from the novel coronavirus across the country. Meanwhile, an investigation by Reveal accuses Kroger and its corporate peers of implementing policies that "effectively incentivize sick and at-risk workers to report for duty or lose their jobs." Reveal also reports on a nationwide survey of grocery-store employees, including those working for Kroger, which includes claims that some companies either actively discouraged employees from wearing masks and gloves or failed to provide any.

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Kroger's policies on these matters appear to be evolving. In late March, the company stated in a press release that it had started permitting employees to wear masks and gloves. And on April 14, Kroger released a statement in conjunction with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union calling for state and federal governments to designate grocery-store workers as "extended first responders," so that they would receive priority access to masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment.

Trowbridge follows this company line in her response. Rather than addressing why employees aren't being asked to wear the cloth face masks or gloves they can obtain now, she focuses on the sort of gear that's been in short supply for health-care workers. "We're working hard to secure these resources and supply has started to arrive for our associates," she says. "We continue to advocate to government officials at all levels for help securing a priority place in line for all grocery workers — after health-care workers — to have access to protective masks and gloves."

She adds: "The health and well-being of our associates, our customers and our communities is our top priority, as such, we continue to follow all best practices provided by federal, state and local officials, including the CDC [Centers for Disease Control]."

Which means that King Soopers customers in Denver, more of whom are wearing masks with each passing day, can expect to see plenty of uncovered faces the next time they need to restock their pantry.

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