A growing number of major retailers are now requiring — or requesting — that shoppers wear a face covering in their store during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move follows a shift from Canadian health officials who, at the start of the pandemic, questioned the benefits of widespread mask wearing and then later suggested it may help stop the spread of COVID-19.
However, there’s still much debate on the effectiveness of the general public wearing face masks, due to a lack of scientific data and concerns over people wearing them improperly. As a result, not all shoppers will buy into the idea of donning face masks.
On Monday, T&T Supermarket chain mandated that shoppers join its employees in wearing face coverings in the store. The Asian grocery chain, which is owned by Loblaws, has locations in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.
“We believe wearing a face mask or face covering can help to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said T&T CEO Tina Lee in a statement to CBC News.
She said any type of material covering both the nose and mouth will suffice, but “pulling up your jacket collar to cover your mouth doesn’t count.”
Customers who show up without a mask can buy a disposable one at T&T for $1 with the profits going to a Loblaws-run children’s charity.
On May 4, Toronto-based grocer Longo’s became the first Canadian retail chain to mandate that customers wear a facial covering; its workers have had to wear one since mid-April.
“We will never stop short of doing what is necessary to keep our Team Members and Guests safe,” said Longo’s CEO Anthony Longo, in a statement.
Like T&T, customers can buy a disposable mask at Longo’s for $1 with the profits going to local food banks. Accommodations will be made for customers who can’t wear a mask for health or other reasons, said Longo.
Please wear a mask, some retailers say
Some other retailers are requesting rather than mandating that customers wear masks.
On Monday, Starbucks, which plans to reopen more than half of its stores by the end of this week, announced in a statement that it’s “respectfully requesting” customers to wear a facial covering when visiting stores. About two weeks earlier, the coffee chain declared that workers must wear a mask.
On April 30, retail giant, Amazon announced it had made masks mandatory for employees and will start requesting that customers wear face coverings in its Whole Foods grocery stores. It said free masks will be offered to shoppers who don’t have one.
Costco in the U.S. implemented a mandatory mask policy for customers on May 4, but no word yet if Costco in Canada will follow suit; the big box-giant declined to respond to requests for comment.
Costco customer Sheena Holley of Sudbury, Ont., said she called her local Costco store to inquire about its plans and was told it would start mandating masks for shoppers on May 4. However, she said no one made her wear one when visiting the store last week.
“I was fine with that,” said Holley, who’s opposed to mandatory masks for shoppers. If her local Costco does adopt the rule, she’ll shop elsewhere, she said.
“I just think it’s ridiculous.”
Holley questions the effectiveness of wearing a mask after health officials have sent mixed messages on the issue.
“Everything that they’ve said has been contradicted time and time again: ‘You should wear a mask. You should not wear a mask.'”
Watch: The ins and outs of wearing masks
Since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have agreed that medical masks, such as N95 respirators, should be conserved for healthcare workers.
But advice for the general public wearing non-medical masks, such as those handmade from cloth or disposable paper ones, has shifted. Up until early April, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) advised that masks help prevent ill people from spreading the virus, so healthy people don’t need to wear one.
Then on April 7, PHAC announced that symptom-free people could wear a non-medical mask in an attempt to protect others, because emerging evidence shows infected people with no symptoms may spread the virus.
However, it also noted that homemade masks aren’t tested to recognized standards and may not be effective in blocking the virus.
Still, the chance that a mask may help is enough for Sandi Nystrom of Lethbridge, Alta. who wears a handmade cloth one whenever she’s in a store.
“If it helps, great, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t hurt other than my physical appearance, and who cares anyhow?”
Nystrom applauds retailers mandating that shoppers wear masks. Her husband has health problems, including Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, which makes him more vulnerable to falling seriously ill from COVID-19. Nystrom said she wants to do everything she can to avoid infecting him.
“There’s only so much I can do to protect my home. People who wear a mask, they’re protecting me,” she said.
Nystrom would like to see a national policy in Canada mandating that all stores require shoppers to wear face masks. Several U.S. states. and countries such as France and Germany mandate that people must wear masks in all or some public spaces, such as stores.
Canada currently only requires that air travellers wear face masks while in transit. PHAC didn’t answer questions about also mandating it in stores.