WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — No one wants to be the face-mask police, but starting Wednesday, there will be potential consequences for businesses that do not require customers to wear them.
Under an executive order announced Friday that goes into effect on May 6, face coverings are mandatory throughout the commonwealth for anyone over the age of 2 who is unable to maintain a distance of 6 feet from others.
Gov. Charlie Baker has characterized mandatory face coverings as a likely part of a "reopened" Massachusetts economy after the state begins phasing out the non-essential business closure order issued on March 23.
In the near term, it is the essential businesses that have remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that will carry the load of enforcement. If the grocery stores, pharmacies and other retail stores singled out in the executive order do not require customers to cover up, those establishments and or the non-compliant customers could be fined up to $300 per occurrence, according to the order.
"It's the governor's decree," said Robert Pytko, the store manager at Adams Hometown Markets in Adams. "It's one of those things where we have to go by what the state obliges us to do. But there are limitations to what we can and cannot do.
"Someone may have a medical condition. There are some things that make it physically difficult to wear a mask."
In fact, Baker's executive order does grant an exemption to anyone who declines to wear a face covering "due to a medical condition."
Pytko said the leadership of Adams Hometown Markets, which has two Massachusetts locations — Adams and Monson — was meeting later on Tuesday to discuss how it would comply with Baker's executive order.
"There are going to be some challenges with it, believe me," Pytko said.
While some Bay Staters may claim a medical exception, the majority of the population will be obliged to wear a mask, and the stores are obliged to ensure that they do.
"If [customers] refuse to wear one, they can be denied entry," said Gina Armstrong, Pittsfield's director of public health. "It's just like when you walk into a convenience store and they have a sign saying, 'No shirt, no shoes, no service.' Now, it's: no mask, no service.
"We will take action with stores that are not ensuring compliance with the requirement. We do have the option to issue fines if it's an ongoing issue."
Armstrong said that her office does not want to have to issue those fines.
"Yes, we do have the option to issue fines if it's an ongoing issue, but our first approach is always an education approach," she said. "We would also want to assess why there's noncompliance. Is it because people are having trouble accessing face coverings? We'd want to address that. Is it a lack of awareness? We'd want to get the message out there."
Pittsfield has been requiring food service employees to wear masks since early April and said it would begin fining scofflaws on Friday, not long before the governor announced the face covering order for everyone.
Armstrong noted that the order to wear face masks is designed to help the community "get back on its feet." It is a measure that is designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 70,000 in the U.S., including 4,212 in Massachusetts.
In issuing the order, the governor emphasized growing evidence that a large percentage of the people who acquire the novel coronavirus will remain asymptomatic but are able to transmit the virus to others. Wearing a face covering, it is hoped, will lower the risk of those transmissions.
On Tuesday, Baker said he believed most Massachusetts residents will get on board with the order to wear face coverings when 6-foot social distancing is not possible.
"My expectation is that people are going to do this," Baker said. "And they're going to do it because it's the right thing to do, not just for themselves but for the people that they are close to.
"I get the fact that getting to 100 percent compliance is probably not going to be a reasonable expectation. But I think people for the most part are going to do it. I really do."
If an individual refuses to comply, city officials in North Adams and Pittsfield were clear that the stores will not be alone in their efforts.
"As a last resort, there would be the option of law enforcement if someone said they're coming in anyway," said Dr. Alan Kulberg, who chairs the Pittsfield Board of Health. "They would be able to file a report with the police. We would hope it would not come to that. We would hope these situations would be resolved amicably."
In a letter addressed to "all essential service retail establishments" dated May 6, the North Adams Department of Inspection Services said, "The City of North Adams will support any establishment in enforcing the [face covering] Order. If any physical security concerns arise, local law enforcement should be notified."
Armstrong said the Pittsfield Health Department would continue to rely on reports from customers about any businesses that are not enforcing the face-covering order, including denying access to non-compliant individuals.
On Tuesday morning, iBerkshires.com reached out to several store managers at some of the larger chains in the area and was referred to their corporate headquarters.
Repeated messages seeking comment from officials at Stop & Shop and Price Chopper were not returned.
A spokesperson from Springfield-based Big Y declined to address whether managers were directed to deny service to customers without masks but did refer to a page on its website that reads, in part, "Customers are required to wear cloth face coverings/masks in accordance with state or local regulations."
A spokesman for Rhode Island-based CVS Pharmacy noted that the retail giant requires face coverings for its employees but that while it encourages customers to wear them, it does not have a policy to deny service to those who do not.
"We have store signage in any market with state or local orders to remind customers that wearing a mask is required by law," wrote Mike DeAngelis, CVS' senior director for corporate communications. "If a customer is not wearing a mask or face covering, we will refer them to our signage and ask for their assistance in remaining compliant with the requirement. If they choose not to wear a mask, our priority is to help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible and provide them with information about other options we have available for their future needs, including free home delivery for prescriptions and our drive-thru window service."
That may not be good enough to satisfy municipalities, which were given the responsibility of enforcing the face covering rule in Baker's executive order.
Pittsfield's Armstrong said that, in general, the city's businesses have done a good job implementing other changes needed to combat COVID-19.
"Here and there, stores get a little bit overcrowded, or here or there if there are lines outside the establishment, they may not be monitored as much as they could, but they're making a tremendous effort," Armstrong said. "And we're seeing more and more consistency as we're going through this.
"And we'll continue to work with them. Our inspectors definitely will follow up if we get any complaints."
The goal of public health officials is to get to the point where complaints don't arise because consumers are complying on their own.
That largely has been the case at places like Guido's Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield and Great Barrington and Kelly's Package Store in Dalton.
"We find, for the most part, people are really willing to comply and have our safety at heart and are grateful we're providing a service and understand there are parameters to how we can operate," said Alana Chernila, the marketing manager at Guido's.
Chernila said starting Wednesday, Guido's will be denying service to anyone not wearing a face covering. Enforcement does put retailers in a difficult position, she said, but that, in and of itself, is not new.
"What about this [pandemic] does not put retailers in a difficult position?" she said. "It's not really a new moment of discomfort. We're getting used to it.
"We have occupancy limits in our store and a line up outside for people waiting to get in. We're already in a position where we're asking customers to comply with a whole list of restrictions to make everyone safer. We ask that they shop alone instead of coming with other people. We ask them not to use their cell phones. We ask that they keep their conversations to a minimum in the store, that they shop at greater intervals than they are used to.
"We have so many things that we've been asking of our customers."
Overall, Guido's is not anticipating any issues when it begins enforcing the order on Wednesday, she said.
At Kelly's, general manager Andrew Kelly also said he is not overly worried about the advent of the state mandate.
"We have very few people coming now without a face mask," Kelly said. "We actually carry face masks. There's a church group that does them for a donation. We've sold over 200 through here so far."
For anyone who is not wearing a face covering, Kelly said he plans to start giving stern reminders to go along with signage asking for compliance.
"Then, if it gets to a repetitive point, we're going to say to a person, 'You can't come in without a face mask,'" Kelly said. "You've got to handle it with some tact.
"You don't want to look like a jerk, but at the same time you want to make sure your community is safe and well looked after. That's part of our job as well."
Updated Wednesday morning with comments from Guido's Fresh Marketplace.
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