With the recent CDC policy changes, public expectations around health during the pandemic are changing. The city has lived more than a year with masks in public and the populace is beset with pandemic fatigue. Now, in many cases, people are ditching their masks. Generally, that’s a good thing — a sign that we are in the clear. But there are some instances where, regardless of vaccine status, people should keep masks on for the safety of others.
Essential workers like grocery store employees are still at risk and their safety needs to be considered. Stores like Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and Sam’s Club almost immediately dropped their masking requirements for customers. This is a mistake. Grocery stores should consider the safety of their workers and keep masking requirements in place for customers and employees.
Workers are already stressed from working through the pandemic. At the beginning, people sang our praises and treated us with respect, but as the pandemic has worn on, compassion fatigue has increased — both for grocery workers and shoppers.
There is no way to quickly verify if a customer is vaccinated. It does not seem feasible to ask a customer for their medical history during a Sunday shopping trip. Requiring anyone in a store to wear a mask is a much more reasonable request, especially for smaller format stores, like the South Philly Food Co-op where I currently work.
At the same time, some customers come into a store looking to antagonize employees or other customers about mask wearing. I am thankful that the co-op customers have been mostly willing to wear a mask in the store, but it’s a year in and improper mask wearing abounds. My coworkers and I have seen countless videos of customer/employee scuffles, the worst being the January anti-mask protests in Los Angeles. We are bracing for conflict as the warm weather approaches.
It is not always possible for workers to avoid contagion entirely. Some people have young children who may not qualify for vaccination, or a preexisting condition that prohibits them from getting a shot. Without store masking policies, if an unvaccinated person stops into a small and busy store for lunch supplies without wearing a mask, it could cause a cluster of new cases.
Not all workers are fully vaccinated. I was able to get vaccinated in February through the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, but the bungled Phase 1b rollout hindered other workers from getting vaccinated in a timely manner. At my store, it took a lot of effort to get everyone else on staff scheduled for vaccine appointments. Some staff were not able to get vaccinated until the Phase 2 openings. The current vaccine provider locations are still not evenly distributed to all neighborhoods. Miscommunication abounds in some groups, stoking fear or apathy. Larger supermarket chains have high employee turnover and people who did not previously work retail may not be fully vaccinated yet.
It is irresponsible for grocery stores to completely revert back to pre-COVID practices. It may be safe to take down plastic barriers at registers, but stores need to continue to be cautious by wearing masks and focusing on fresh air circulation and air treatment. Until a majority of the area’s population is vaccinated, I hope that residents will show that they care about essential workers by continuing to wear masks at the grocery store. Additionally, residents should tell their representatives that they want city health officials to keep certain restrictions in place and continue to help vaccinate the entire city population. If we all support each other, we can finally come out of our long hiatus and enjoy vibrant city life once again.
Cameron Adamez is the front-end manager of South Philly Food Co-op.