Why Natural Grocers Isn't Barring Customers Without Masks

A look at the Natural Grocers outlet at 1265 Sergeant Jon Stiles Drive in Highlands Ranch.
A look at the Natural Grocers outlet at 1265 Sergeant Jon Stiles Drive in Highlands Ranch. Google Maps
Despite evidence that mask usage helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, a percentage of the Colorado public still chafes at wearing facial coverings in public and offers all kind of excuses for failing to do so. A pair of shoppers at Wheat Ridge's Brass Armadillo, for example, recently claimed that they'd eschewed masks because they had "a health exemption from the President."

Such scenarios put retailers in a tough spot. Should they bar entry to mask-less patrons and risk a freakout? Or overlook occasional infractions even though doing so could potentially endanger more people and incur the wrath of health officials?

Natural Grocers, a national chain that got its start more than six decades ago as the homegrown Vitamin Cottage and today has ten Colorado stores, is choosing the latter course. A letter sent to concerned customers notes that "some people are very angry about the restrictive measures taken by the government in response to the pandemic" and justifies using educational signage rather than preventing anyone without a mask from entering the store with this: "We want to promote a calm and peaceful shopping environment, where our Crew members are not put in harm’s way."

The letter was obtained from Josh Schlossberg, a local writer (his work has appeared in Westword) who is currently taking a sabbatical from journalism in favor of advocacy. In recent days, Schlossberg has launched Colorado Covid Watch, a new project whose online platforms include a Facebook page, a Facebook group and a Twitter account. Schlossberg says that he and other CCW participants "want to promote businesses that are doing the right thing in regard to health measures, where we put out what we’re calling COVID-COMPLIANT CHAMP OF THE DAY as a carrot. And folks who are concerned about measures can know which businesses are safe."

He adds: "Our stick is getting folks to contact us about the businesses not complying, urging them to contact public health, and then we’ll follow up to make sure inspectors have visited. Before posting about them, though, I contact the business itself and give them a chance to correct course. If they do, and we can verify this, we’ll promote them as CHAMPS. If they don’t, we’ll put out FB and Twitter posts about their verified violation (asking folks for photos) and share those widely, if only so health-conscious folks know to avoid those businesses, instead of the rude awakening upon visiting."

Natural Grocers wound up on Schlossberg's radar 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 recalls.

After leaving a voicemail message on Natural Grocers' complaint line, Schlossberg received an email response from the customer service department. It begins with kind words — "We appreciate your feedback. Your comments will be helpful for review upon any possible future reassessments of our processes" — before revealing 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."

The Natural Grocers email also includes a link to a CNN article from August about federal guidance for retailers dealing with customers sans facial coverings and a letter signed by the Isely family, which founded Vitamin Cottage in Lakewood in 1955 and still controls Natural Grocers; its top four board of directors members are from the clan. The missive supports the concept of mask usage but argues that being more aggressive about compliance creates more trouble than its worth.

Here's the letter:

Dear Natural Grocers Customers,

Face masks are a very contentious issue right now. But then again, everything feels like a contentious issue right now. Many of us are worried, concerned and scared. We have been social distancing and isolating, but the pandemic has not gone away. We have been locked away from each other and many have lost their jobs. We are all concerned for our loved ones who may live across the country or even in the same city, but we cannot be with them for fear of making them sick or vice versa. These are the stresses that make us all crabby and angry and make us feel a bit intolerant of each other. And it seems like the recent face mask orders issued by local governing bodies have become a focal point of contention. Some cities and counties have mandated the wearing of masks by everyone while in grocery stores. Some have allowed exceptions if the wearing of a mask would inhibit a person’s health. Some have encouraged the wearing of face masks without requiring them.

What is the best thing to do? We are committed to the health and welfare of our customers and good4u Crew and to ensuring a shopping environment that is as safe as possible for everyone. You are our neighbors and family and we have to navigate these troubled times to provide the best direction and guidance we can while you shop at our stores.

We wanted to share with you our thinking about this issue. This is what we know:

1. Recent scientific research indicates that wearing a face mask and washing our hands frequently are probably the most effective and protective actions we can all take right now to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For example, FDA studies indicate that if 50 percent of the population uses a mask, transmission of the flu virus would be cut in half. Research also indicates that if 80 percentof the population uses a mask, the flu virus would essentially be eliminated. A University of Michigan study found masks and hand washing can cut the spread of flu-like symptoms up to 75 percent. This is the difference between a pandemic and something that fizzles away. The science is therefore clear: face masks are effective.

2. Some people cannot wear face masks, as wearing a mask will inhibit their health due to an underlying health condition. Additionally, it is not possible to tell simply by looking at a person that he or she has such a health condition. Since we cannot lawfully ask a customer if they have a health condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, this requires some understanding and tolerance from fellow customers and Crew. We therefore encourage and ask that everyone who can, to wear a face mask while shopping.

3. It is very likely that most people do not have a health condition that would make wearing a face mask problematic. So, if those of us who can wear a face mask, do so, then we should be able to reach the critical mass that is protective of us all.

4. Many people are experiencing fear and anxiety about their health, the loss of jobs, and not knowing how they are going to pay their bills, and this drives anger and frustration. Some people are very angry about the restrictive measures taken by the government in response to the pandemic. A small minority are so angry that they have actually harmed others, including essential workers in grocery stores.

After careful consideration of these factors, combined with the need to protect the health and welfare of our customers and Crew, Natural Grocers has made the following decisions relating to face masks:

1. We have decided that posting signs is how to best advise you of the specific government orders that pertain to the store at which you are shopping. We hope that this will reduce the potential for any conflict and ensure the safety of our good4u Crew.

2. We will post large signs in our stores informing our customers of the face mask order in effect for that city or county and providing directions based on the restrictiveness of the order. Our signs will also inform our customers of the scientific support for wearing a mask in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

a. If the order is one that requires everyone to wear a mask with no exceptions for health reasons, the sign will read: “By government order, a face mask or other suitable face covering is required to be worn while shopping. Customers without face masks are not allowed inside. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.”

b. If the order is one that requires everyone to wear a mask and there are exceptions for health conditions, the sign will read: “By government order, a face mask or other suitable face covering is required to be worn while shopping, unless doing so would inhibit your health. We appreciate everyone who is able to do so wearing a face mask while shopping. We thank you for supporting each other as we all do what we can and for your understanding that some customers and Crew are unable to wear a face mask as it inhibits their health. Together we are strong. Together we will thrive.”

c. Where masks are recommended and/or there is no government guidance, the sign will read: “My mask protects you. Your mask protects me. Thank you for wearing a face mask while shopping and helping to protect each other and our heroes in aprons and face masks.”

3. We are confident our customers will comply with these signs. We believe that when faced with an ethical choice and when fully informed, almost everyone will do the right thing, especially those who shop with us.

4. We think that using positive messaging and education is the best way to encourage our customers to wear masks. In this way, our customers will learn that wearing a mask is the best way to protect each other. Most people want to do the right thing by each other.

5. We ask that you are patient with and supportive of each other while shopping and understand that some people cannot wear face masks because wearing one would inhibit their health.

6. We want to promote a calm and peaceful shopping environment, where our Crew members are not put in harm’s way. We ask for your help in this.

7. We believe that we need to reframe the conversation and tone in the nation. We need to focus on a positive approach and figure out ways to support each other and help each other get through this.

We appreciate you taking the time to read this letter. We are working every day to find solutions to the problems that this pandemic continues to throw at all of us. We are all in this together. Together we are strong. Together we will thrive.

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