Why are supermarkets letting their masks slip?

Adobe Stock licensed. Medical face mask required advertising banner by Mike Fouque

What we once thought of exceptional times are now becoming the new norm. On a personal note, we’re not sure how covid will affect my husband’s heart condition, so we’re being particularly careful at the moment. Also, we don’t want to jeopardise his upcoming skin cancer operation which we’re hoping won’t be delayed too long by the pandemic. 

Since Omicron took hold, we’ve stopped seeing friends and family. It has also put paid to our rather hesitant visits to cafés and restaurants. We just don’t feel at ease in places where masks aren’t mandatory. As hospitality venues aren’t obliged to wear masks, we’re voting with our feet and staying away. It’s now too cold to sit outside, especially if you’re in poor health.

Perhaps it’s also just as well we’re not gym bunnies and our clubbing days are well and truly over, if we ever had them in the first place.

Life is far from normal

Life is far from normal, but the one thing I am still trying to do is some grocery shopping. I really don’t get on with internet shopping for groceries. I don’t like the uncertainty of substitutes and freely admit that I love a bargain (obviously using hand gel before and after looking at the reduced label goods). And with so many shortages, being in-store is really the only way to ensure you get what you want, even if it’s not your first choice. 

In order to keep as safe from the virus as possible, I shop alone and go to larger store, selecting what I hope will be a quiet time and always use the self-checkouts so I don’t have to go to a conveyor belt till. As a very outgoing person, social distancing has been exceptionally difficult, but I understand why it’s necessary to protect ourselves, and if the pandemic has had one benefit it’s that countless other shoppers haven’t been held up while I gossip with the person on the till. I’m now in and out as quickly as possible.

Why are staff – and customers – put at additional risk?

But there’s a problem. Here in the Birmingham/Black Country at least, it seems whichever supermarket I go to, the member of staff at the self-scan checkout area tends not to wear a mask. Sometimes I’m lucky and don’t have to engage with them, but more often than not, there seems to be something that makes them have to come near me.

Either I’ve bought some alcohol, or something with a tag – or worst of all my shopping is selected for a random check where my pleas for the staff member to use hand gel beforehand are simply ignored. I try to stand somewhere out of the way, not always easy. Whilst shopping, I’m more or less able to dodge customers (and staff on the shop floor) who aren’t wearing masks, but at the till, I have no option but to wait for things to be sorted.  

I fully understand why supermarkets occasionally need to check my age or what I’ve bought. But why does it always have to be done by a member of staff who is not wearing a mask?

For example, I’ve just bought a new wok at Tesco. It had an anti-theft tag on it, so needed to be removed by a member of staff. She wasn’t wearing a mask. “She doesn’t need to” barked another customer, for some reason coming to her defence rather than mine. Not only did she have to come near me to inspect my receipt, she then took a very long time to remove the tag, serving other customers on her way, many of whom were ignoring the legal requirement to wear a mask. Perhaps I should have bought the wok online, but it was there, and so useful to be able to actually see what I was buying. 

Going shopping should be safe for everyone

Interaction with staff without a mask puts me on edge and my pleadings for a mask wearing member of staff to serve me somehow make me a rude and awkward customer. Staff seem to forget my purchases pay their salaries, and surely they ought to find a way to make me feel safe and secure, rather than very anxious, afraid, and feel like a nuisance.

Usually the staff member takes umbrage and thinks I’m the one being rude, when all I want is to feel as safe as possible.  It seems that all sense has gone out of the window. The reason we need to wear masks is to prevent the virus spreading. That has somehow been completely overlooked.

How on earth did “being exempt” become more important than keeping everyone safe? And how did that somehow translate to people thinking they were exempt from catching or passing on the virus?

Masks protect others 

Studies show that wearing a mask generally protects other people rather than the mask wearer, although greater protection is gained by the FFP2 masks which I always wear. Surely a non-mask wearing member of staff in a self-scan checkout, serving many people and floating around puts everyone in more danger of catching the virus. Especially the member of staff. 

The most ridiculous excuse I’ve heard from a member of staff is that she was exempt as she was pregnant. Pregnancy, by the way, is not a reason for an exemption. On the contrary, surely it’s a reason TO wear a mask and protect the unborn child. On that occasion I was so upset that I rang the manager of the store, to no avail as she had no concept that mask wearing actually protects others more than the wearer. Yes, I will name and shame, that was at Sainsbury’s, but it’s been the same at Tesco and Asda.

On the frequent occasions I have had to engage with a non-mask wearing member of staff, it then seems to be their duty to go out of the way to keep me stranded at the till for as long as possible. Once at Asda, not knowing if I’d paid or not when the till threw a wobbly, I simply put the goods in the foodbank and fled.

Another time, the member of staff was astonishingly rude to me and forbade another member of staff from helping me – and then called security! It was the day before my husband’s birthday and I had no option but to wait for things to be sorted. I did make a formal complaint to Asda’s head office, but they completely failed to acknowledge my point and have suggested I go back to shopping online as “Logistically it just isn’t possible to find non-customer facing roles for all exempt colleagues within our business”.

Surely those staff members should be a tiny minority, and easily deployed to keep them safe – from themselves as much as customers.

Is it really too much to ask to feel safe while shopping?

Why is it that people think being exempt from wearing a mask somehow makes them exempt from catching the virus? There aren’t actually that many exemptions. And if someone is genuinely medically exempt (mainly due to something like a lung disease), surely a supermarket should be taking more care of its employees by keeping them away from as many people as possible during these exceptionally difficult times.

I can understand it can be annoying to wear a mask. But there’s good reason to wear them and protect those around you, and no-one’s yet explained why people can’t wear a face shield, affording at least a little protection. Come on, supermarkets, you can do better than this to protect staff and customers. And perhaps it’s time to think again about who is actually exempt. 

Perhaps there’s a wider argument here. With a government – and especially the Prime Minister – bending rules out of all recognition, is it any wonder people are doing what they like, rather than caring for others? 

Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Join our mailing list