Editorial: It’s Time to Let Grocery Store Workers Wear Masks

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If you could do something simple to potentially prevent someone from becoming sick, would you?

That’s a question everyone who shops in grocery stores and anywhere else food is still being sold during this pandemic should be asking those businesses right now, as more of their employees continue to become sick from COVID-19 while at the same time being denied the right to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Several sources working within the grocery store industry within the past 24 hours have confirmed to Saucon Source that they are forbidden from wearing face masks while at work.

Will wearing a face mask guarantee that if you’re exposed to COVID-19 you won’t be infected by it? No, it will not. Even an N95 mask–the type recommended for use in hospitals–doesn’t provide absolute protection from the disease, which is why so many doctors and health care workers around the world have tragically been infected by it.

But if the question is changed to “Could wearing a mask help protect someone from COVID-19?” then the answer has to be “yes,” because the disease is spread through respiratory droplets that can travel up to six feet. A mask–any mask–is at least a barrier to some of those droplets. And that is one of the reasons why the CDC is currently reconsidering its earlier recommendation that only individuals who are sick wear masks. It’s also why U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) has advocated for masks via Twitter using the hashtag #Masks4All, which has since become part of a rallying cry in favor of the change.

Ask anyone who has ever worked in a grocery or convenience store if it is possible to maintain at least six feet of distance between themselves and all customers at all times and they will tell you no. Even though employees try their best to maintain that recommended amount of social distance, it’s a losing battle. As they fill cases and answer questions their space is frequently invaded and there’s not much they can do about it.

Can you imagine an employee telling you to “please back up, you aren’t six feet away from me?” That’s not likely to happen, first because it would be frowned upon by store management, but more importantly because employees are there to serve customers first. That’s all they want to do–safely. And telling a customer they’re too close is going to feel awkward; much more awkward than wearing a mask in front of them would.

At this point an employee wearing a mask in front of a customer shouldn’t be awkward or uncomfortable for anybody, since the customer is likely wearing a mask himself. And a customer wearing a mask who views an employee wearing the same mask with suspicion can only be called a hypocrite, not to mention uninformed. Almost daily now there are news headlines about grocery and convenience store workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus, a potentially fatal disease which is especially dangerous for individuals over 65. Many, no doubt, are being infected by the customers they are serving at risk to themselves. Many local grocery store employees are also over the age of 65 and/or immunocompromised–or they live with people who are elderly and/or have underlying health issues–and none of them are being given exceptions to wear masks while at work.

When people all around us are becoming sick in the midst of the worst pandemic in at least a century, we are clearly well beyond the point where “image” should matter, unless that image is of an employee not wearing a mask. Sadly, some consumers still wrongly think it is employees who are refusing to wear PPE in grocery stores. To anyone who thinks that, please ask to speak to the store manager in your local supermarket. Then ask them what the real reason is behind their maskless staff. Feel free to invite the press along so we can record their answers and share them with the public. That isn’t something journalists typically do, but these are extraordinary times and lives are on the line, including those of our heroic health care workers–some of whom live with grocery store employees and could potentially be infected by them outside of their workplace.

Nobody is suggesting that our heroic medical workers shouldn’t have access to the PPE they need.

To suggest that this is a case of one class of workers against another is not only disingenuous, but un-American at a time when everyone should be pulling together.

If we really are the greatest country on Earth, as the U.S. is often referred to, there ought to be enough resources as well as ingenuity to solve this problem and protect our greatest resource, which is our people. All of our people.

If they’ve been able to stock store shelves with them for years, the corporate giants we buy our food from are more than capable of finding a way through their vast supply chains to provide quality masks for their employees at least once a week. Walmart has commmitted to doing it to the tune of seven million masks per week, and they won’t cut into the supply needed by health care workers.

CDC guidance since the pandemic began has been that people who aren’t sick with the virus don’t need to wear masks, but as of Monday it was being reconsidered due to the explosive growth in the number of confirmed cases continued.

Meanwhile as Washington dithers, and as supermarket owners ignore the pleas of their workers for protection, more employees are becoming sick.

The time to allow all grocery store, convenience store and other frontline food supply chain employees access to vital PPE is now.

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