Image shows four women wearing masks outside a furniture store
Circle Furniture employees in Massachusetts wear masks at work and ask customers to don them in the company's six stores.

Face coverings become standard equipment

Masks, or no masks?

That has become a contentious question in many parts of the country, where governors and mayors increasingly are issuing orders for people to wear face coverings in public places and businesses.

But there’s little controversy in Massachusetts, according to Richard Tubman of Acton-based Circle Furniture.

Not only does the company require employees to wear face coverings in each of its six stores and for deliveries, it asks customers to do so as well.

“A couple of customers have rolled their eyes,“ Tubman said. But almost none resists. In fact, wearing face coverings in public has been common for months in Massachusetts – one reason, Tubman believes, that infection numbers are now declining in the Bay State.

Most furniture stores couldn’t reopen until June 8. Since then, however, “business has been pretty darn good. We’ve been pleased with that,” Tubman said.

When asked if Circle Furniture’s safety practices in the stores have raised the comfort level of both employees and customers, Peggy Burns, Tubman’s wife, was adamant: “Absolutely.”

Circle Furniture prepares ‘Safe Shopping’ video

Circle Furniture spelled out its precautions in a “Safe Shopping” video posted on its website just before its stores reopened.

“As we’re preparing to open our doors and welcome you back into our showroom, I want to talk about some of the changes we’ve made that will make your shopping experience a little bit safer,” Brian Bechard, a visual merchandiser, began. “Next time you stop in our showroom, you’ll notice there’s a hand-sanitizing station right at the front entry. Our design staff will be wearing a mask, and we ask that you do as well. If you forgot one, don’t worry, we’ll provide a mask for you.”

Bechard outlined other steps, including cleaning practices and services to help customers who are staying home. “Your health and safety is at the top of our list,” he said.

Circle Furniture expresses that priority in how it chooses to operate its business at a time when a deadly new virus has spread across the country. In some states and cities, however, governments are making that decision.

In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered everyone, if able, to wear face coverings in virtually all indoor public spaces.

“Science shows that face coverings and masks work,” Newsom said in a statement June 18. “They are critical to keeping those who are around you safe, keeping businesses open and restarting our economy.”

New responsibilities put on retailers

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued an order June 24, effective June 26, that put new responsibilities on retailers.

“Retail businesses must have all workers wear face coverings when they are or may be within six feet of another person,” Cooper’s order said. “In addition, retail businesses must have all customers wear face coverings when they are inside the establishment and may be within six feet of another person, unless the customer states that an exception applies.”

The burden of enforcing this order fell to the retailer. And so would potential penalties.

“Citations under this section shall be written only to businesses or organizations that fail to enforce the requirement to wear face coverings,” the governor’s order said.

A few days later, however, the governor modified his order. Under the revision, retailers only had to post a sign “putting the customers on notice of the face covering requirement.”

North Carolina, like many states, is seeing increasing numbers of infections and hospitalizations. Many people do not wear face coverings in public or in businesses.

Compliance might vary by region

The mandatory mask order was nothing new in the San Francisco Bay area, where local orders to wear face coverings in public have been in effect since April.

Image shows two men wearing masks
Bobby Watson and Nick Watson of Hoot Judkins Furniture in Redwood City, Calif.

“I would say 99 percent of our customers are arriving with a face mask of some sort,” said Bobby Watson, co-owner of Hoot Judkins Furniture in Redwood City. “It is a requirement in our county (San Mateo) and the surrounding counties, so most people are pretty resolved to wear them.”

“I would also say the farther you travel from the Bay Area, the more relaxed the rules are or at least the rules are followed,” Watson added.

Farther north in Clearlake, Dan Griffin’s experience reinforces Watson’s point. Infections have been low in the area, and only about half of the customers coming into Griffin’s Furniture Outlet were wearing face coverings before Newsom issued his order.

“I highly doubt people in general will follow the mandate,” Griffin said, and he didn’t plan to enforce it. “If we get a significant rise in our area, I may change my tune.”

Be sensitive to customers’ needs

At the same time, Griffin stressed that he and his staff are sensitive to their customers and want to do what makes them most comfortable.

So far, customers seem very comfortable, Griffin said. They’re buying!

“We’re seeing unprecedented demand right now. With supply constraints, it’s challenging, but my employees have done an extraordinary job navigating the waters as I procure product. … Our payroll is now larger than pre-Covid-19.”

In general, the country is seeing a dramatic change in how consumers act and react in the retail environment, Jay Ahern said in a National Retail Federation webinar June 17. Ahern, a former acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is a principal at The Chertoff Group. He and Michael Chertoff, a former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, spoke about balancing public health and commerce.

Many shoppers now look for signals before they enter a store, Ahern said. Is there a hand-washing station near the front door? How crowded is it inside? Are people wearing masks? The right answers assure them that the business cares about their health and safety.

If furniture retailers check all those boxes – and many do – their customers should reward them.

Face coverings can reduce potential liability

Another box is legal liability. The HFA is pressing for liability protection from COVID-related claims at the state and federal levels. But even in the handful of states where that has been granted to ward off unwarranted lawsuits alleging exposure to the virus, businesses must comply with state and federal safety guidelines. That requires retailers, first, to know what those guidelines say. Since guidelines are frequently updated, businesses must keep up.

The Centers for Disease Control now recommends:

  • Conducting daily health checks of employees.
  • Conducting a hazard assessment of the workplace.
  • Encouraging employees to wear cloth face coverings in the workplace, if appropriate.
  • Implementing policies and practices for social distancing in the workplace.
  • Improving the building ventilation system.

In an HFA webinar last month, attorney Pascal Benyamini laid out steps employers should take to avert legal claims.

“You have to do your best to maintain that social distancing, to give the employees the necessary gear in order for them to have before you reopen,” said Benyamini, a partner with Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath in Los Angeles. “It’s one thing to reopen, but if you don’t have the hand sanitizing, if you don’t have the masks, if you don’t have the policies in place, that makes it very difficult to adhere to the requirements of safety and avoiding the risks and liability.”

Face coverings don’t substitute for distance, OSHA says

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also recommends that businesses encourage their employees to wear masks at work. It stresses that its guidance is intended to help employers maintain a healthy workplace but is not legally binding.

Furthermore, OSHA does not consider cloth face masks a substitute for social distancing. Nor does it categorize cloth face coverings as personal protective equipment that must be provided by employers.

In addition, there may be situations where face coverings actually pose a safety hazard. They may obstruct vision, for example, increasing the risk of tripping or falling for employees unloading furniture from a truck or carrying it up or down stairs. Employers must be prepared to conduct risk assessments for every job.

OSHA also publishes guidance on different types of face coverings. Some are more effective and useful than others.

Face customers with face coverings

Image shows two women with face coverings
Julie Isley and Katie White of Boone’s Furniture & Gifts in Burlington, N.C.

In jurisdictions where it’s up to employers to decide what to do in their stores, they probably should conclude that, in most circumstances, customer-facing employees such as sales associates and delivery crews should face customers with face coverings.

They certainly should communicate their policies and practices to customers. If they encounter criticism, they should stress that face coverings are a safety measure, not a political statement.

Safety protocols should accomplish these purposes:

  • Increasing safety for customers and employees.
  • Assuring customers it’s as safe as possible to shop in your store or to receive deliveries.
  • Rebuilding your business without having to experience a second round of closures.
  • And minimizing legal risk.

Given that a second round of business closings would be economically crushing, the better alternative by far is to enforce safety measures in stores.

For a list of state orders for face coverings published by Littler Mendelson, go here.

[HFA’s Covid-19 Recovery Resources]


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