How face masks are spurring battles on Utah’s front lines

When Amy and Will Wilson decided to require — not just encourage — face coverings while shopping inside their Cottonwood Heights butcher shop, they got a few angry responses from customers who attempted to explain why most masks are ineffective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

The owners of Snider Bros. Meats didn’t step away from the heat, though, because face coverings were one of the measures that employees said would make them feel safer at work.

Several of the 18 workers go home to family members who are considered at risk, Amy Wilson said. And a few are the sole supporters of their family.

“They wanted the store to stay open and wanted to continue working,” she said. "But they said, ‘Keep us safe while we try to keep people fed.’”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) General Manager Jake Wilson does a regular surface cleaning as a steady stream of customers visits Snider Brothers Meats in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, where owners Will and Amy Wilson, have been requiring that all customers wear masks or facial coverings when they come to shop. They say it's important to protect their employees, several of whom are the sole breadwinners in their families and have at-risk family members.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain — such as grocery stores and pharmacies — especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

The use of cloth face coverings, the agency added, slows the spread of the virus and helps people who may have the virus — and do not know it — from transmitting it to others.

Gov. Gary Herbert has also said masks should be considered part of everyone’s “fashion statement." Still, most people do not wear them when they go out.

“As an industry, we’ve begged and pleaded with customers to please wear masks when you go into retail stores,” said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association. “It’s critical for protecting the employees and the other customers.”

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But it’s a difficult rule for grocery stores to enforce, especially minus a mandate from the state, he said.

“There are people out there in the ‘no mask’ camp that can easily create confrontation between retailers and customers,” Davis said.

Last week, government leaders in Stillwater, Okla., issued an emergency proclamation that required customers entering stores and restaurants to wear a face mask. Within a day, the order was rescinded after city leaders heard from business owners who were verbally abused and threatened with violence, including, in one instance, the threatened use of a firearm.

At a dollar store in Flint, Mich., last Friday, a security guard told a woman that her daughter had to put on a mask before entering the store. The two left, but family members returned, police say, and shot the 43-year-old guard in the head. He died that night in a hospital. The woman and two of her relatives face murder charges.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Costco staff sanitize shopping carts as they begin implementing a policy on Monday, May 4, 2020, that everyone in the store, including shoppers, have to wear a mask.

Costco, the national warehouse chain, seems to be making it work. On Monday, its stores across the country began requiring customers to wear masks inside its warehouse stores, a policy that frustrated some shoppers.

Some called for anti-Costco boycotts on social media; others believe that the face covers are an ineffective safety measure and that forcing people to wear them is an infringement of their rights.

Costco did not comment on the policy. Instead it is directing media to its website, where CEO Craig Jelinek has explained the company’s decision in a letter to members.

“We know some members may find this inconvenient or objectionable,” Jelinek said, “but under the circumstances we believe the added safety is worth any inconvenience.”

Jelinik said it was not simply a matter of personal choice, insisting a face covering “protects not just the wearer, but others, too.”

Although some may disagree with this policy or question its effectiveness, the CEO said, the company was choosing to “err on the side of safety” in its stores.

“Costco has continued to operate during this crisis as an essential business in all of our communities, and our employees are on the front lines," he added. “As part of a community, we believe this simple act of safety and courtesy is one that Costco members and employees can undertake together.”

Costco received a vote of support from Utah Sen. Todd Weiler. In an April 29 tweet, the Woods Cross Republican defended Costco’s decision on free-market grounds. “There is nothing wrong," he said, "with a private business trying to protect its employees and other customers.”

For Utah Rep. Phil Lyman, however, his choice not to wear a face mask is rooted in “defiance.”

Speaking at a “business revival” gathering Saturday in Utah County, in an interview posted on Facebook, the Blanding Republican said, “if the governor wants me to wear a face mask, all he has to do is say, ‘No more face masks. You can’t wear a face mask.’ I’ll wear one every dang day.”

Herbert, during a media briefing last week, called it a “pet peeve” that more people don’t wear masks while shopping. The governor said he and his wife, Jeanette, "have a mask on when we go in. The employees have masks on. But too many of the customers don’t have masks.”

Not wearing a mask has become, for some, a political statement. Supporters of President Donald Trump, waiting outside a Honeywell plant in Phoenix before the president’s visit there Tuesday, taunted reporters on the scene for wearing masks.

According to Arizona Republic reporter BrieAnna J. Frank, in a Twitter thread, one man said, “It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak — especially for men.” (Trump did not wear a mask during his appearance at the plant, which makes N95 respirator masks.)

At Snider Bros., in addition to the required face masks, the store is limiting how many people can be inside at any one time. It also has reduced business hours and stopped making some of the specialty prepared items it once offered.

Customers who don’t want to wear a mask can order ahead for pickup. And those who arrive and discover they need a mask can buy one for 75 cents.

“They’ve done everything to protect us and our families,” said employee Rose Lami, adding that her husband has a heart condition, so “I wouldn’t continue working if I didn’t feel 120% safe.”

Which is why Rachel Wilson, who works alongside her parents and brother, is frustrated by the negative comments. “They stick out and feel like a personal attack to our overtaxed and overwhelmed family and employees.”

Her parents, though, say for every negative response they have received, there have been dozens of customers who have thanked them.

“We have to do this because you just don’t know who has it,” Sandy resident Karen Garrett said as she waited in line outside the store. “There’s very little risk in wearing a mask. It’s just being a responsible citizen.”