Workers brace for renewed 'rebellion and anger' in stores and restaurants amid changing mask guidance

  • Insider spoke with eight retail workers on the return of mask mandates as COVID-19 cases surge.

  • Some said they'd feel safer if shoppers wore masks, but they worried about more anger and violence.

  • Retail workers have confronted anger and violence over mask guidance.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Some retail workers are worried about going back to policing mask use in stores and restaurants following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC recommended in late July that everyone wear masks indoors in areas with high transmission, after saying in May that vaccinated people could drop their masks indoors. Some companies followed suit and resurrected mask requirements for all.

Insider interviewed eight store-level employees of major chains including Walmart, Ikea, and Starbucks. They appeared split on whether their employers should mandate masks and vaccines for workers and customers. But most agreed that as frontline employees, they didn't want to be in charge of forcing shoppers to comply with any such mandates.

In some cases, shoppers have violently retaliated against workers over mask requirements. A Family Dollar security guard was killed last year during a dispute over masks. A customer shot and killed a grocery cashier in June after she asked him to wear a mask, authorities said.

In response to customer hostility, some retail workers have "rage quit." Those who remain in their jobs may soon be tasked with asking shoppers once again to wear masks.

Workers expect renewed anger over masks

"I would love if our customers still had to wear masks," said Jeannette Randall, a Safeway store employee in Seattle. "It would give all employees a bit of relief in being in fear of the Delta variant." Safeway's parent company, Albertsons, is considering reinstating a mask requirement.

Randall said she was fully vaccinated but fearful of new variants and the possibility of infecting her unvaccinated 6-year-old child or her immunocompromised mother.

"The fear is still there, and I know - even though I am vaccinated and masked - unless we all do our part, myself and my family are not 100% safe from COVID," she said.

A Safeway shopper wearing a mask leaves a store with a cart.
"I would love if our customers still had to wear masks," a worker at a Safeway told Insider. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

A Walmart worker in Massachusetts said that enforcing mask mandates would be more difficult now that some people have dropped masks over the summer and had a "taste of freedom." Walmart recently said it would require vaccinations for corporate employees and imposed mask rules for vaccinated associates in high-transmission areas.

"People are getting tired of contradicting information and uncertain levels of precaution toward minimizing the outbreak," the Walmart worker said. This employee, along with several others, asked to remain anonymous so they could speak freely on the topic. Insider confirmed their identities.

Starbucks is now requiring all staffers in its company-owned stores to wear masks. Vaccinated customers must wear masks in areas with local mandates.

A white Starbucks cup with a brown-and-green sleeve on a table.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"Overall, baristas are a little miffed," a Starbucks barista in Nebraska said, "especially those who have their vaccine shots and have been without masks for a month or more now."

Workers don't want to enforce mask mandates

A Walmart worker in California called the return to mask-wearing a "step backwards" for the vaccinated. He said retailers should instead require proof of vaccination at store entrances.

An Ikea worker, also based in California, said they didn't want to have to enforce mask-wearing, even though they support the practice. Ikea hasn't changed its policy of allowing vaccinated shoppers to remove their masks in stores.

Read more: Post-pandemic life isn't killing hard seltzer. The bar is.

"I think having a mask mandate again will make those difficult customers elevate to new levels of rebellion and anger," the worker said. "The first time around I was scared every time I told someone they had to wear a mask, because I wasn't sure if they would comply or if they would cuss at me and spit at me."

A different Ikea employee in a Midwestern state also said their coworkers were concerned about a return to mask mandates.

"I don't think anyone wants it mandated for customers again, because it makes customers irrationally angry to have to wear a mask and they become awful to deal with," the worker said. "At this point in the pandemic, nobody has the energy for that crap anymore."

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