Getty Images / WPA Pool / Pool
Surinder Josan has been dealing with Covid-19 disbelievers in his All Seasons DIY shop in Smethwick, Birmingham, throughout lockdown. “One guy wanted to shake my hand, and I said I really shouldn’t because of the coronavirus – he just walked out muttering, ‘Coronavirus, my ass’,” he says. But now that masks are set to be made mandatory inside shops from July 24 under threat of a £100 fine, Josan has a problem: what to do if someone refuses?
“I don’t think it’s down to us to enforce it,” he says, explaining he hopes customers will manage it themselves. “The authorities have said anybody sensible will do it anyway, and I think other customers will insist on [others wearing masks].”
No-one wants to be responsible for enforcing this rule. “We will expect retailers to manage entry to their stores and compliance with the law while customers are inside, with police involvement as a last resort,” said Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chief’s Council, in a statement. But Peter Cowgill, the CEO of JD Sports, told the BBC that his stores will offer masks for free to shoppers, but not ask staff to enforce the rule. “It’s a police matter to enforce rather than for them to get involved in any potential public disturbances,” he said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested the public will police themselves. “Enforcement is for the police, but the enforcement, I think, will largely be undertaken by the British people themselves who have been remarkable in their fortitude, sticking with these rules even whilst they may be a frustrating imposition,” he told parliament.
But that’s not how it’s played out across the US, with videos of screaming arguments and fist fights between shop staff and customers going viral. In the UK after the rule was announced, there was instant push back, with “muzzles” and “maskmoaners” cropping up as trending topics on Twitter.
And that’s the crux of the problem. Enforcement would be easy if people simply did as they were asked, but masks have become strangely politicised, in particular in the US. “There the refusal to wear a mask as a marker of conservative [or] right-wing political identity has been clearly and consistently communicated by the President, Vice President, several members of Congress, several Republican Governors, and the vast majority of Fox News programming,” says Adam Moore, a psychology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. “Now it’s much too late to change that, and the effect is evident in every news cycle. Here in the UK things aren’t quite so polarised, though there are indications it may be heading in that direction.”
Mass are mandatory in plenty of countries around the world – including Germany, Italy, and Spain, as well as Scotland – and they haven’t sparked violent outbursts. However, skirmishes between mask detractors and store staff have been well documented over social media: a Costco worker calmly takes a loaded trolly from a shopper who wouldn’t put on a mask, a woman screams at everyone as she’s kicked out of Trader Joe’s, and another screams at a Starbucks barista in San Diego for asking her to cover her face.
In California, a small taco chain shut its doors for two weeks, tired of the abuse against staff over a request to wear masks, including customers yelling at Latino staff to “go back to where you came from,” according to CNN, and throwing a cup of water through a window at staff, according to the New York Times. “Our taco stands are exhausted by the constant conflicts over guests refusing to wear masks,” Hugo’s Tacos posted on Instagram. “A mask isn’t symbolic of anything other than our desire to keep our staff healthy. Both of our locations are going to take a break and recharge.” The restaurants have since reopened, and now sell t-shirts with the slogan “no mask, no taco”.
Which face mask should you buy?
In the most extreme cases, the tension has turned to violence. In LA, in May, masks were required in grocery stores, but two men entered a Target without a face covering. Asked to leave, they punched a store security guard, knocking him to the ground and breaking his arm, a police statement says. Both were arrested for felony battery. In Michigan, where masks are mandatory in stores, police shot dead a man who stabbed another man over a mask dispute in a corner store. And in France, a bus driver was attacked by two passengers who refused to wear a mask on board, contrary to local laws. Their kicks and punches left 59-year-old Phillipe Monguillot brain dead, and he subsequently passed away in hospital. Murder charges are pending.
Given such violence, it’s no wonder shop owners aren’t keen to ask their staff to enforce face coverings – no-one wants their shop to go viral in a culture-war video or for employees to risk their safety. Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailer Association, said: “this is not the role of retailers and we would be concerned any such enforcement may lead to a further increase in the number of threats and abuse shop workers in the UK are currently experiencing”.
There’s no easy way to avoid conflict, but Moore suggests retailers be as clear as possible about how they’re going to manage the issue. “People who don’t want to wear masks are likely to lash out if they’re asked to do so by an employee,” he says. “If they see large clear signage at the entrance, all employees are wearing masks, the websites have landing-page announcements, and they can’t go in (or stay in) without one, then all of this will decrease the likelihood of unpleasant incidents.”
William Coe, of department store Coe’s of Ipswich, says he won’t ban customers who refuse to wear a mask, so long as they have no obvious Covid symptoms. “I don’t think we’re going to resort to calling the police. I trust my team to make the right judgement,” Coe says. “We’re not going to be in a position of policing this, that’s not our job. Our job is to serve our customers in the best way possible.” Josan has his own solution to those who refuse to wear a mask into his shop. “We’ll just serve them from outside and bring them whatever they need.”
As retailers will all manage the issue differently, shoppers won’t know what to face when they do hit the shops – though any anxiety over the issue can easily be avoided by wearing a mask.
If shops can’t or won’t enforce this law, it will fall to police with that £100 fine – but there’s simply not enough of them to cover every store. “Operationally the police will be entirely reactive – attending calls re failing to wear a mask, as opposed to any proactive deployments in shops or shopping centres, therefore by the time the police arrive it will be highly unlikely the situation will still exist,” says Owen West, a retired chief superintendent who is now a research fellow at Keele University.
Because police will be used as a last resort in most cases, West believes fines will be “vanishingly rare” with officers not wanting to get involved unless they absolutely have to.
By making face coverings a policing issue, the government is giving up on encouraging the behaviour as a social good and collective public health effort. “The key message ought to be about wearing a mask to play your part in protecting others as opposed to a punitive message – don’t do this and you will be fined,” says West. “It appears that the government is largely abandoning that sort of messaging – the sort of communal, collective, act of goodness – and is now reverting to positing a series of rules and the threat of sanction that follows if they are not obeyed.”
That may lead to public shaming – many people in Britain cheerfully reported neighbours for breaking lockdown laws, after all, and that attitude is likely to continue with this new rule. That’s because some people see masks as a way of showing others they care about their health, says Moore. “When you see someone not wearing one, it will be automatically, intuitively perceived as an open statement that your life and your family’s [or] friends’ lives are not worth even minimal effort on this person’s part,” he says. “Shaming them is, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, a fairly light touch way of trying to get them to alter their behaviour. This kind of thing can rapidly escalate though, so I certainly don’t recommend it.”
Community or self policing is difficult in cases like this where there is no consensus on the issue or it’s complicated by politics, leading non-compliant people to feel as though they’re being attacked. “In other words, if they don’t feel part of the community of those cooperating with mask-wearing, then any attempt at community policing will almost certainly be perceived as an illegitimate personal attack by a stranger, rather than an expression of community concern,” Moore says. On the flip side, those who favour mask wearing will see that non-compliance as a “deliberately selfish attack against the community as a whole,” he adds. In short, everyone will feel attacked.
As more people wear masks, the behaviour may become normalised, lessening the need for enforcement. But Moore says that would be helped by taking the politics out of it. “If people who are currently against wearing masks see ‘their’ politicians and leadership not only wearing them, but consistently advocating that masks should be worn and clearly explaining why in simple terms, then they’ll start wearing them too,” he says.
In other words, if prime minister Boris Johnson actually wants people to wear masks, he’d do better to make them mandatory for himself and his own staff – yet Michael Gove was spotted shortly after the announcement at Pret with his face uncovered and Tory MP Desmond Swayne of criticised masks as “a monstrous imposition” in parliament. Get them in line, and enforcement would be easier.
And that’s something for shoppers to keep in mind when they hit the shops, masked or not. As shop owner Coe puts it, he didn’t make the law. “It’s a rule imposed on us by the government but it’s for the greater good,” he says. “Whether you agree with that or not, that’s your choice in terms of voting at the next election, it’s not for us to debate now. We’re asking you to wear a face mask, so please wear a face mask.”
More great stories from WIRED
☢️ Nine years on, Fukushima’s mental health fallout lingers
🦆 Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back
😷 Which face mask should you buy?
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.