Natural Grocers Responds to Report About COVID-19 Mask Use in Stores

A Natural Grocers location at 12612 West Alameda Parkway in Lakewood.
A Natural Grocers location at 12612 West Alameda Parkway in Lakewood. Google Maps
A November 9 Westword story about safety protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic focused on a response sent to a customer who'd complained about an unmasked patron at a local branch of the homegrown Natural Grocers chain. That response included a letter explaining why the company used educational signage rather than preventing anyone without a facial covering from entering its stores: "We want to promote a calm and peaceful shopping environment, where our Crew members are not put in harm’s way."

After publication of that post, Natural Grocers reached out to Westword to dispute the report, maintaining that it's required customers to wear facial coverings since July. Yet the company didn't dispute the authenticity of the original letter, nor does it dispute a recently obtained National Grocers memo stating that a policy requiring shoppers to don masks would be adopted as of November 20.

The first missive was obtained by Josh Schlossberg, a local writer (his work has appeared in Westword) who is currently taking a sabbatical from journalism in favor of advocacy by way of Colorado Covid Watch, a new project whose online platforms include a Facebook page, a Facebook group and a Twitter account.

Natural Grocers wound up on Schlossberg's radar late last month after he spoke to an unmasked customer at the Evergreen branch; he then requested a conference with a manager over the issue. "The person on duty at the time told me 'higher ups' were telling them NOT to ask non-mask wearers to put the things on," he told us.

On October 31, after leaving a voicemail message on Natural Grocers' complaint line, Schlossberg received an email response that included the "calm and peaceful shopping environment" letter, prefaced by a note that "our current enforcement via signage rather than a greeter is based on not asking customers their personal information about medical exemptions and also the increased contention we are seeing with mask enforcements at other retailers across the country. It is unfortunate that some of the contention is resulting in violent retaliation, and we do not want to put our Crew in those types of situations."

click to enlarge A photo of the November document. - PHOTO BY JOSH SCHLOSSBERG
A photo of the November document.
Photo by Josh Schlossberg
After our original piece was published, Schlossberg obtained a copy of an internal memo addressed to Natural Grocers stores in Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The document, seen at left, states in part: "We have declared that effective 11/20/2020 (tomorrow), all customers will be required to wear a face mask/approved facial covering to shop in your store. If they refuse and enter the store, we will not provide service and will have to contact police to have them trespassed for the day."

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's November 18 outbreaks update, which boasted a record-smashing 259 new entries, included a listing for Natural Grocers' corporate offices in Jefferson County. The CDPHE identified two positive staff cases of COVID-19.

Kemper Isely, Natural Grocers' co-president and a member of the family that founded the company, which started as Vitamin Cottage more than fifty years ago, offered the following statement regarding that CDPHE finding: "We have determined that the very limited number of our crew members with positive cases at Natural Grocers’ corporate office did not contract COVID-19 while working in our facility. They were quarantined and anybody that they had close contact with were also quarantined and sent home. We also pay everyone that is sent home so that they are not afraid to report that they are ill and suffer wage loses. We have strict contact tracing protocols in place to make sure we can get ahead of any transmission within our facility. We would also point out that under CDPHE’s approach two or more positive tests are deemed an 'outbreak' on its outbreak map, regardless of the likely source of transmission identified through contact tracing. In reality, we believe this shouldn’t have been reported as an outbreak at our facilities because it didn’t happen at our facilities."

No matter when it was enacted, Natural Grocers' new face-mask policy is clearly a step in the right direction. As for our original piece, the company responded with this letter to Westword (updated on November 23):
To Westword’s Editorial Team & Our Customers —

As the family that founded Natural Grocers, we were dismayed to read Westword’s article titled "Why Natural Grocers Isn't Barring Customers Without Masks." As positive cases continue to rise here in Colorado and around the country, we wanted to address the erroneous statements made in the article and to clarify our COVID-19 face masks policies for our customers.

Since our parents founded what was then called "Vitamin Cottage" in 1955, we have as a company — and as a family — made the health and well-being of our Crew members and communities our top priority. Our Founding Principles, which truly exemplify who we are, have always guided our decisions and have kept our focus on the wellness of the communities we serve.

Unfortunately, retailers around the country are dealing with public misinformation regarding their face mask policies and the implementation of those policies, and we are no different. We have made every effort to make those policies clear from the beginning, but we’d like to clarify our face covering protocols and policies for your readers:

• We require our customers to wear face coverings to shop in our stores and our good4u Crew members to wear them while in the store, back offices and break rooms.

• Our Crew have been wearing face masks since April, before it was a governmental requirement or mandate. We were ahead of the curve on getting our Crews masked – with the reports of mask shortages, our Crew members, some of their family members, and our customers began making masks for in-store, distribution center and bulk manufacturing good4u Crew. We began sewing masks in mid-March and had enough masks for every crew member to have multiple masks by mid-April. If anything, due to our grassroot efforts and foresight we were one of the first national chains to have all of our employees masked up. At that time we also hung signs in the store that read “Your mask protects me, my mask protects you.” Those signs have been up in our stores prior to health departments or state or local government providing signs or setting ordinances. From that time forward we have made every effort to follow state, city, and county mask guidelines and enforced these mandates based on direction from local public health officials.

• In July 2020, we voluntarily adopted a policy across all of our stores requiring customers to wear a face covering while shopping, even in states and cities without a government mandate to do so. We have prominently posted signs that ask all customers to wear masks, educational signs talking about the importance of masks, and as supplies last we have masks available for those that may have forgotten their mask. In fact, when masks were still in short supply we sent our stores the handmade cloth face coverings so that customers who didn’t have masks would have one. We strive to follow every state, county and city order down to the bottom line and to remain in compliance with the mandates – we believe we’ve gone above and beyond for our community and our employees.

• As your story reported, we do have multiple signs at store entrances and throughout our aisles reminding our guests to abide by our face mask policies, but we don’t rely solely on those signs for enforcement of our policy. Our store crew members help to reinforce our policies in a respectful and safe manner, and many of our stores also have greeters at store entrances to help enforce mask wearing. We add greeters to stores when the situation calls for it.

• In our analysis of customers wearing vs. not wearing masks, we found that an estimated 1% of our customers do not wear masks, which is very minimal.

• We closely monitor CDC guidelines as well as state and local public health orders, including face mask mandates, and work closely with local officials to ensure our adherence to those orders, down to a T. We will continue to remain in compliance with those mandates. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an evolving public health challenge and as you’d expect, from time to time we enhance our health and safety protocols based on public health developments, as well as state and local guidance. We believe that all of our policies reflect our ongoing commitment to the health and safety of the communities we serve.

This pandemic has turned our stores, along with grocery stores around the country, into essential businesses. We have taken our responsibility to our good4u Crew and our communities very seriously from the beginning of the pandemic. While it may be hard for us to hear sometimes, we want to know when our policies are not being followed. It helps inform us as we work with our teams every day to make sure we are offering the safest possible working and shopping conditions. But we want to make sure the information is accurate and to help eliminate the spread of misinformation. We appreciate the opportunity to let our voice be heard and we welcome respectful and helpful feedback from the communities we serve.

With Gratitude,
The Isely Family
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts