Many retail and fast-food workers in states like Mississippi and Texas, where governments have removed mask mandates before a majority of people have been vaccinated and while troubling new variants of the coronavirus are appearing, are feeling a heightened anxiety.
It feels like a return to the early days of the pandemic, when businesses said customers must wear masks but there was no legal requirement and numerous shoppers refused. Many workers say that their stores do not enforce the requirement, and that if they approach customers, they risk verbal or physical altercations.
For many who work in retail, especially grocery stores and big-box chains, the mask repeals are another example of how little protection and appreciation they have received during the pandemic.
While they were praised as essential workers, that rarely translated into extra pay on top of their low wages. Grocery employees were not initially given priority for vaccinations in most states, even as health experts cautioned the public to limit time in grocery stores because of the new virus variants. (Texas opened availability to everyone 16 and older on Monday.)
The issue has gained prominence: On Monday, President Biden called on governors and mayors to maintain or reinstate orders to wear masks as the nation grapples with a potential rise in cases.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly 900,000 grocery workers, said this month that at least 34,700 grocery workers around the country had contracted or been exposed to Covid-19 and that at least 155 workers had died.
The recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., has only rattled workers further and added to concerns about their own safety.
A Kroger representative said that the chain would “continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the Covid-19 vaccine,” and that it was offering one-time payments of $100 to workers who received the vaccine.
The differing state and business mandates have some workers worried about more confrontations. The retail industry was already trying to address the issue last fall, when a major trade group helped put together training to help workers manage and de-escalate conflicts with customers.