Imagine that you work at Walmart.
Now let's imagine that you've been given a new role: Walmart health ambassador.
You take up your position. Most customers comply and wear masks. But you're there for the ones who don't.
Some simply turn around and leave when you remind them of the policy. Others take the free masks you offer and go about their business.
But a certain percentage object to the very idea. Some of them are vehement about it.
Some say they have health issues, or refuse to wear masks because of "the HIPAA law." Others become angrier, yelling: "Why do I have to put on a [bleeping] mask?"
Still others have excuses you never would have imagined: "I'm from out of state. How do you expect me to come prepared to wear a mask?"
In extreme cases, you get spit at, or threatened, or a customer pulls up his shirt to reveal he has a gun.
Most of the customer examples above are from a Reddit thread that invited Walmart health ambassadors to share their experiences. The one about a customer showing a gun when asked to wear a mask comes from a person who said he was a Walmart health ambassador who reached out after reading my original article about Walmart's policy.
I'm withholding his identity because he wasn't authorized to speak for Walmart. But there have been other reports of customers pulling guns over mask disputes.
I don't see a lot of employees blaming Walmart. The anecdotal comments suggest most seem to understand the company is between a rock and a hard place.
Walmart wants to do its part and enforce the mask policy for health reasons. But the company also want to avoid any escalating conflicts between customers and employees.
And that can lead to frustration for some health ambassadors.
"Recently got 'promoted' to health advisor [sic] at Walmart and this is our script," wrote another person, posting short documents labeled Health Ambassador Guidelines and Health Ambassador and Management Talking Points on Imgur. "All a customer has to do not to wear a mask is say 'no,' two times. I don't understand the point of saying their [sic] required if they'll still let them shop without one."
If customers won't wear masks, health ambassadors are to alert higher management, and that person makes the call whether to reengage or let it go or even to call the police.
Although, in some jurisdictions, the police say they simply won't be responding to mask disputes.
Look, we're in the middle of an unprecedented, global pandemic. Nobody is happy about it. Like it or not, the question of whether or not to wear a mask has become a political statement in some places.
So, we're stuck with what my freshman year economics professor might call a tragedy of the commons:
- The odds of any one customer at Walmart refusing to wear a mask, and then either contracting Covid-19 or unwittingly spreading it, is fairly remote. At the least, it's very hard to track.
- But add up dozens, or scores, or hundreds, or thousands of such people, and the odds shift dramatically.
In trying to get a handle on the scope of the problem, I posed a question directly to Walmart: Are there stores where mask compliance is so low, and enforcement is so difficult, that Walmart might consider temporarily closing those stores?
A company spokeswoman, Rebecca Thomason, emailed me a statement in reply:
The safety and well-being of our customers has always been a priority, and continues to be so now as much as ever. As an essential business, we are committed to serving our customers through challenging times. We will continue to adapt and find ways to ensure our stores remain open for customers who rely on us.
Hmmm. That doesn't exactly directly answer my question. In any event, part of the reason I follow the decisions that big public companies like Walmart make on things like this is that they're often reacting to the same kinds of issues that your business faces.
How do you deal with customers who simply refuse masks? What do you tell your employees to do in response? Is there a point where the concern, added to the rest of the panoply of problems and challenges you're facing right now, forces you to change your business?
For the rest of us, the principle remains the same: Wear a mask. Stop the spread. And let the people who work at Walmart and elsewhere simply do their jobs.