How Bad Will Mask Rage Get for Retailers?

How Bad Will Mask Rage Get for Retailers?
Retail has sometimes provided a battleground between mask proponents and opponents.

To some consumers, they represent tyranny. To many other shoppers, they stand for common sense and respect for others.

But to a growing number of retailers, face masks are the source of rage and violence. They represent yet another point of pain, frustration and friction during this long year of pandemic. And now the potential for further conflict is spreading from food retail to the wider world of commerce as some economies continue to reopen but pressure to wear masks increases at the same time.

Starbucks, for instance, on July 15 will require customers to wear masks at all company-owned locations in the U.S., an example of the ongoing spread of mask requirements. "Customers that may not be wearing a facial covering will have various options to order their Starbucks, including ordering at the drive-thru, curbside pickup through the Starbucks app or placing an order for delivery through Starbucks Delivers," the company said. 

You’ve no doubt seen the videos on social media: A hot-tempered consumer going off on store employees or other shoppers over requirements to wear a face mask (or keep socially distant or abide by other pandemic-protection rules). Some people have lost jobs over those recorded tantrums — like the ex-insurance agent who went on a rage inside a Florida Costco recently — while others have gained online infamy (or sparked concerns about mental health).


The problem has been especially severe inside food retail stores, which, of course, were deemed essential and remained opened during the pandemic.  But now that other retailers have the green light to reopen their doors, it’s reasonable to expect more incidents involving mask rage. Death, unfortunately, is possible from mask rage — as demonstrated by the alleged murder of a Family Dollar security guard in Michigan who refused to grant entry to a customer not wearing a mask.

Recent statistics from the state of Oregon shed some light on all that.

According to the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Division, it has received at least 5,400 complaints since the start of lockdowns about potential workplace safety violations related to the pandemic. About 1 of every 12 complaints involved food retail stores, and included such issues as sick cashiers manning checkout lines and lack of social distancing along with the failure of other people to wear face masks.

More often, however, those complaints focus on the face mask issue, a potential sign of what’s ahead in the weeks and months to come.


The problem is not confined to the U.S., either.

Mask rage incidents have been reported in countries that have a deeper culture of sick people wearing masks. In South Korea, in fact, the hot weather of early summer reportedly is among the reason for recent mask rebellions.  

Another reason for mask rage, in South Korea, the U.S. and other countries?

New mandates to wear masks in public as officials struggle to contain fresh outbreaks and further spread of coronavirus. These new mandates can add to the sense of stress — or even oppression — that many consumers feel.

The stir-crazy nature of months on lockdown certainly doesn’t help keep consumers’ emotions cool when it comes to wearing masks inside stores, mental health experts have said. Nor does the additional stress that comes from job and income losses, and anxiety about what’s coming next in a year that pretty much everyone wants to forget about.

Other factors also can spark mask rage, those experts said. They include an inherent aversion to authority (U.S. culture was founded on rebellion, after all), the discomfort that some people have when wearing face masks, and inconsistent rules about when and where to wear those pandemic protection tools.

That’s not to say all is grim.

People tend to get used to things they don’t like, and peer pressure can and probably is playing a role in making sure shoppers mask up, according to some of those experts. As well, as the pandemic endures, it’s likely that more consumers will come around to the wisdom of wearing masks while in public spaces.

Not only that, but retailers, at least in general, are getting stricter about mask requirements, setting the tone for the industry at large. One example comes from the U.S. Defense Commissary Agency, which operates some 240 retail locations across the world serving members of the military (as well as members of the reserves and military retirees) and their families. 

On Tuesday, the federal agency said that it was now selling reusable and disposable protective masks at those locations. "Commissaries are selling masks to meet our customers' needs, especially during this pandemic," said LaRue Smith, a category manager. "We don't want our customers taking an extra shopping trip for something they can get in their commissary and at a lower price.

The agency said that since April 6, commissaries have required that employees wear "some form of face covering ... to comply with the April 5 Department of Defense directive mandating that standard for anyone entering military facilities." That directive was extended to shoppers and anyone else entering those stores shortly after.


Retailers are looking for any help they can get — and that includes having a consistent standard. 

Earlier this week, for example, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) sent a letter to the National Governors Association about the need for need for consistent safety measures in the age of the coronavirus.

“The goal of the retail industry since the outset of this pandemic has been to homogenize policy to the greatest extent possible, to move away from conflicting state and local orders, away from designations like essential/nonessential, and towards a set of leading recommendations by which all retailers could operate safely,” wrote Brian Dodge, president of Washington, D.C.-based RILA, in the July 6 letter, which was addressed to National Governors Association Chair Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., governor of Maryland, and Vice Chair Andrew M. Cuomo, governor of New York.

That letter directly referenced face masks.

“Basic safety precautions like social distancing and mask wearing – when properly enforced and not politicized – are important tools,” he wrote. “When combined with the investment retailers are making in sanitization and safety, we are confident that retailers can remain open and safely serve the public throughout this crisis.”

Having a consistent standard on face masks would likely help retailers and save them at least some of the trouble of having to enforce mask-wearing without the backing of authorities. That said, all signs point to more instances of mask rage as the summer heats up and more consumers lose patience with the pandemic and its associated stresses.