State Records Show Oregon Grocery Stores Are Reluctant to Enter the Culture War Over Face Masks

Gov. Kate Brown pledges to enforce mask rules. State records show nowhere is that enforcement more sought after than in grocery stores.

A Fred Meyer in Northeast Portland, shown in March, before health officials declared masks best practice.

Since mid-March, more than 5,400 Oregonians have complained to state regulators about workplace safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, records show. At least 449 of those complaints—nearly 1 in 12—are about grocery stores. The concerns range from people standing too close together to cashiers working while sick.

Increasingly, those complaints center on one allegation: grocery chains not making their customers wear masks, as required by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

Kathleen McLaughlin filed one. On July 1, the 61-year-old Portlander called Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, aka Oregon OSHA, to report the Stadium Fred Meyer in Northwest Portland wasn't enforcing mask rules.

McLaughlin, 61, was making a run for avocados and a frozen pizza that morning, when she spotted two customers bare-faced. She asked a Fred Meyer manager if he was going to enforce Gov. Brown's requirement that Oregonians wear masks in all indoor public spaces. She says he declined, citing violent confrontations that have ensued across the nation when grocery workers tried to make shoppers don face coverings.

She then called Oregon OSHA—and WW. "If not everybody is wearing the masks, then we're all screwed," McLaughlin says. "I see these crazy people on the internet, refusing to wear masks—the Karens of the world. I'm so frustrated."

On June 17, Gov. Brown announced an order requiring masks in all stores and restaurants in the state's most populous counties. On July 1, she expanded the order statewide. Days earlier, she announced that Oregon OSHA would enforce the rule. As COVID-19 cases continued to rise going into the Fourth of July weekend, the governor pledged to send inspectors to ensure businesses complied.

State records show nowhere is that enforcement more sought after than in grocery stores.

Costco in Northeast Portland. (Henry Cromett)

A database of OSHA complaints provided to WW via a public records request shows grocery stores are a nexus of Oregonians' COVID frustrations—as many as a dozen people a day kvetch to the government about them, with most of the ire directed at Fred Meyer, Safeway and Walmart.

"The store is packed with customers," says the log of a June 26 complaint about a Walmart in Salem. "Almost half of the customers are not wearing [a] mask, face shield, or face covering."

The most common target of complaints against grocers? Fred Meyer.

On one level, that's hardly surprising: It's the largest grocery chain in the state.

Yet repeatedly, customers leveled the same allegation against the store: Employees told shoppers who complained about the lack of mask enforcement that their bosses had instructed them not to enforce the mask policy.

"Numerous customers in the store are not wearing masks, and store associates stated that they are not being told to enforce mask wearing," says a June 26 complaint about the Fred Meyer store in Milwaukie. Another, from the Tualatin store, on the same day: "The store manager stated that Fred Meyer is not enforcing the mask rule because their 6-foot distancing policy is effective."

Oregon OSHA confirms it's currently investigating complaints against the chain, owned by Ohio-based grocery giant Kroger.

(Wesley Lapointe)

Fred Meyer's corporate office did not directly respond to WW's questions whether it would refuse service to patrons who didn't wear masks. Instead, the company said Fred Meyer would "request" all customers wear masks.

"In locations where masks are mandated," spokesman Jeffery Temple tells WW, "we support the local ordinance and are making every reasonable effort to encourage compliance. We also enforce the ordinance through door signage and in-store radio as well as the ongoing execution of additional protection measures like floor decals and protective partitions at every check lane to further promote physical distancing."

The chain faces the same political landscape as other businesses—one in which the nation's president and right-wing media outlets disparage the COVID-19 threat as overblown and masks as a sign of weakness. That's sparked a culture war over mask-wearing, even as health experts say donning a face covering is the single best precaution to prevent spread of the disease.

Portland grocery employees say customers regularly refuse to wear masks.
At Whole Foods Market in the Pearl District, seven employees walked out June 3, saying the store was failing to strictly enforce safety protocols, including the requirement to wear masks.

"It falls to the lowest-level and worst-paid people to be confrontational in enforcing them. It's so tiresome," says Alexander Collias, a cashier among the Whole Foods employees who walked out on Friday. "My personal goal with it was to get the store management to have to work on a register. It's an anxiety-provoking experience."

Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, tells WW that worker safety remains its top priority, and that it follows local mask ordinances, including Oregon's. "We request that all customers wear masks while shopping in our stores," a representative said, "and provide face masks at the entrance of all stores for customers who do not have their own face covering."

A Fred Meyer in Northeast Portland, shown in March, before health officials declared masks best practice.

National experts say big grocery chains have repeatedly declined to mandate masks unless government makes them—because the culture war seems like a bigger safety risk than an outbreak. In dozens of high-profile incidents across the country, shoppers have responded with rage when asked to put on a mask; a Dollar Tree security guard in Michigan was reportedly shot and killed in a mask-related dispute this May.

"It's very common in retail to instruct employees not to try to stop or chase shoplifters in order to avoid an unnecessary risk of violence, and many retailers have applied the same theory to masks," J. Craig Shearman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, told CQ Roll Call this week.

Dan Clay, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, says that matches what he's seeing at Oregon stores.

"The major grocers aren't enforcing the mask policies," Clay says. "They don't have people at the door checking for masks. Practically speaking, if somebody doesn't wear a mask, the response is to just ignore it. That's getting pretty old for essential employees who come face to face with this on a daily basis."

(Wesley Lapointe)

That leaves enforcing the rule to Oregon OSHA. A note in the agency complaint log shows an inspector asked Fred Meyer on June 24 to provide the state with its plan for mask enforcement in seven Oregon counties.

McLaughlin says she won't return to Fred Meyer to find out. "I'm just disgusted with them," she says. "I told the manager, I shop at Trader Joe's most of the time. They have two people at the door checking for masks."

This story has been updated with a more extensive response from Whole Foods. 

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