Masks in supermarkets: am I a man or a mouse?

A couple of days ago I was doing some Christmas shopping at a local supermarket near my home in Cornwall. As I scoured the shelves for stollen (a favourite festive treat in our household), I couldn’t help noticing that quite a few of the other customers were not making any attempt to socially distance, and neither were they wearing masks.

I was sorely tempted to ask them why they were choosing to put others at risk in this way, but was held back from doing so by a combination of not wanting to “make a scene” and not being sure whether these people were perhaps exempt from mask-wearing for some valid reason.

After I got home, I felt a bit ashamed of my failure to speak up. Should I do so next time? Or was there some better way to address this problem? I posted on Twitter to see what other people thought and what they would do in the same situation. There were dozens of interestingly varied responses.

Several brave souls were forthright on the need to confront non-maskers. “I challenge them always”, wrote Jaqueline Brooker. “Being a ‘mature’ teacher helps, I’m used to not standing for any sh*t. Just a shame I can’t put them in detention.” Peejay Adams advocated a similar approach. “All of my siblings are teachers, I’ve acquired the ability to do a death-stare by osmosis,” he reported.

I have also been a teacher for several decades but have somehow failed to acquire this useful skill. There is also the problem of using facial expression to show one’s feelings while one’s features are concealed behind a layer of thick cotton, as James Thomas noted:  “I move away whilst scowling at them. Of course they can’t tell that I’m scowling because I’m wearing a mask.”

Andy Griffiths reported a striking example of pointed intervention: “I was in Morrison’s a few weeks ago where a family of five were prodding and poking all sorts. None wearing masks. An elderly lady very nicely said: ‘You should wear a mask, dear. Being so obese you are in a high-risk group.’ She walked off leaving the rest of us in tears.”

Others advised a more subtle approach. “There are ways of expressing disapproval without causing a dangerous confrontation,” observed Ben Samuel. “Turning your back, asking them to not come closer than 2m apart, quietly mentioning it to the manager or security, tweeting about it afterwards, withdrawing your custom until it is safe.”

Andy Ward reported: “I find a visual clue is often effective. I’ll catch their eye while adjusting my own mask. You would be surprised how often it works. If it doesn’t have an effect I would inform a staff member.” Andrew Harries suggested a rather less subtle hint of a sort that might not go down too well with other customers: “Stand close to them and start pretending to cough if you are feeling really vicious.”

Several people pointed out that there might be good reasons for not wearing a mask. “Remember some people are excluded from wearing masks from medical reasons – you never know a person’s situation,” wrote Nandi. Others were more sceptical. Cindy Ponting wrote: “I have COPD, I have extreme breathing difficulties.  I ALWAYS wear a mask. In fact on Tuesday I’m having my hair done and that will be two hours wearing a mask. We are not all idiots – I do not make my condition an excuse.”

Several people commented on how hard it was for supermarket workers to enforce mask-wearing.  Tom Heyes reported: “I spoke to the person at the checkout. She told me that they had given up challenging people due to the threats of violence and damage.”  Twitter user @sjcnj told me: “Police in London have said this is a flashpoint for them in policing Covid – members of the public intent on doing the right thing confronting others who are not. Keep your mask on and move away.”

Anthony Dooley commented: “My response is determined by their size.” Fair enough, but I am pretty large myself. Was I, as Martyn Cattermole inquired, “man or mouse”?

But many others also thought it unwise to challenge unmasked shoppers. “Given the likely reaction, I take the view it’s simply not worth it,” wrote Richard Dixon.  “‘Mind your own f*****g business’ is as polite as you can expect.” This was confirmed by others, including Tessa Rodger, who reported: “I have said stuff (politely) in the past and have been given foul-mouthed abuse so don’t do it now.” From the US, Erste Laste reported: “Here in the US the advice from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to the general public is ‘Don’t confront people who have already proven they don’t care about your well-being.’”

“The anti-maskers tend to be very aggressive and antisocial.” Jens Geffert observed: “It is pointless engaging with such people. Lead by example and stay away from them. Only if they feel like the village idiots that they are, shunned by everyone, might they change. An argument will just make them believe they are rebels for their cause.”

This potential for a violent response seemed to be confirmed by some of the anti-maskers who responded to my tweet. One of them said he would be happy to knock me cold should I question his right to endanger others, before immediately blocking me. Another demanded: “Why don’t you just mind you’re [sic] own Business, and concentrate on what your [sic] doing. Leave others alone.” She went on to inform me that “anyone who has a go at me will wish they hadn’t.”

Several people writing from other countries reported much stricter enforcement of mask-wearing. “Isn’t it obligatory in the UK?” asked Linda Norton. “If you want to be shouted out, try entering a French shop without one.”  Jane Gilbert wrote that refusal to wear masks in shops is “something not experienced in Germany – no mask = no shopping. I think it was one of the better rules whatever the evidence may or may not suggest; it means there is a certain amount of solidarity action by everyone – like it or not.”

The preponderance of opinion seemed to be that it was up to the supermarket to make sure that rules were respected. “I would inform security in the store and ask them to remove the people concerned. If you tell them to wear a mask they will probably get angry at you and call Toby Young,” quipped @rodlux.

“I’d write to the supermarket and complain – advise them your business will be taken elsewhere unless they adopt a ‘no mask, no shop’ policy,” wrote Julia Hoban.

And in the end this was the advice I followed. I emailed the supermarket’s customer team to suggest that they put staff on the door to make sure customers entering the store are wearing masks unless they have a good reason not to  – a policy that seems to work pretty well for other large shops locally.

Will this request lead to any changes? All I can tell you at present is what the supermarket has told me: “Our team is looking into this for you and we’ll get back to you shortly.”