Christopher Vanderpool works shifts as a “health ambassador” at a Walmart in Fayetteville, N.C., For $11 an hour, he stands in the parking lot asking customers to put on masks before entering the store.
Many abide by the rule. Others, the 18-year-old said, “will say ‘No, I am not wearing that garbage,’ or some expletive.”
“Everyone is so tense,” Mr. Vanderpool said. “I would be scared to confront people.”
Big retailers have made strong statements recently about their new rules requiring customers to wear face masks when shopping, saying that the health of their workers and customers is paramount. But when it comes to enforcing those mandates, the companies are taking a decidedly hands-off approach.
Walmart has told employees that they should not prevent a customer from entering the store if they refuse to wear a mask. Walgreens said that “for the safety of our team members” the company would not bar customers without masks from its stores. Lowes also said it would “not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks.”
Many shoppers and workers say the retailers’ reluctance to police their customers’ mask wearing ultimately renders the new rules toothless and will perpetuate the spread of the coronavirus. And workers find themselves thrust onto the front line of a cultural and political war over masks that can lead to ugly confrontations and, at times, violence. Last weekend, two episodes stood out: In one, a video of an altercation involving two shoppers in Walmart wearing masks with a Nazi swastika went viral, while a man was arrested after an incident in a Walmart in Palm Beach County, Fla., in which he pulled a gun on another shopper who had asked him to put on his mask.
Adding to the tension at his store, Mr. Vanderpool said that he’s noticed more customers coming in with guns, including Glocks and other handguns, sometimes tucked into their waistbands. North Carolina is among states that allow people to carry firearms openly.
Walmart enacted a rule last year asking customers not to bring firearms into its stores, after nearly two dozen people were shot and killed in one of its locations in El Paso. In a stance echoed by its mask policy, the company said managers of stores in states that have open-carry laws are instructed to ask customers to leave their gun in their car. But they do not obstruct the person from shopping in the store, even if they bring their gun. Walmart said there had not been a recent increase in shoppers bringing guns into stores across the country during the pandemic.
Mr. Vanderpool said Walmart should hire security guards to enforce the mask rule and protect employees from contracting the virus. “They should be able to say if you don’t have a mask you cannot come into our store,’’ said Mr. Vanderpool, who is enrolled at Brown University in the fall.
In a statement, Walmart said, “we are pleased that the vast majority of the 150 million customers who visit us each week are wearing masks.”
The retailer said that if someone didn’t want to wear a mask, managers “will talk to the customer and try to find a solution. We do not want our associates to do anything that could lead to a physical confrontation.”
Walmart said it was also trying to accommodate shoppers who cannot wear masks for medical or religious reasons.
But some shoppers say the retailers are taking the easy way out by announcing mask policies that are not true mandates.
Toni Vitanza has shopped regularly for her husband’s medication at a Walgreens near their home in Clemson, S.C., but has transferred his prescriptions to another retailer after observing shoppers without masks and employees saying that their managers expressly told them not to do anything about it.