On Tuesday afternoon, the Oregon Health Authority released guidelines that require businesses to ask customers for proof of vaccination if customers and employees aren’t going to wear masks. (It won’t impact how many people can come in.)
That announcement marked the end of a chaotic five days in which many Oregonians, relying on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concluded they no longer needed to wear masks when shopping or dining.
Alex Aldridge is a Portland grocery worker. He asked us not to name his employer. Aldridge submitted the following narrative to WW, asking customers for a little understanding as workers adjust to seeing customers’ faces again.
As we in our community begin to unmask, I ask—no, I plead with—my neighbors to please remember us “essential” workers, particularly us in the grocery and retail sectors.
In the beginning of the pandemic my coworkers and I were lauded as being essential, making way for countless “Thank you’s” and appreciation, all of which were quite lovely. The thoughts and feelings that many of us had; stress, anger, fatigue, and fear of the unknown, mirrored what many people were experiencing throughout the country and the world. Many of us in the beginning were a complete wreck, even though we understood we were fortunate enough to have not lost our jobs during a global pandemic. We were grateful to still be employed, even though many of us were putting vulnerable family members and friends at serious risk by going to work.
On top of the risks that we had been putting ourselves through by working with thousands of people every day, exposing ourselves to the virus wasn’t the only problem we had to face and continue to face. We had to deal with confrontational people every single day, misdirecting their anger towards those of us that were already under an enormous amount of stress.
All along we had been, and continue to be, pushed to the edge.
I moved up here from a state in the Southwest that didn’t enact a 100% mask mandate. You would be amazed about how many people would come into our store with a “medical exemption,” seemingly as valid as the lady with her “service dog” eating samples off the floor, barking at all the customers, or riding in the top of the grocery cart. The real irony was that the claims of it being hard to breathe with a mask on due to asthma were pointed out sometimes to a coworker who had asthma but somehow managed to put on the mask and wear it 40 hours a week for these last 15 or so months.
As far as I know, no one has died from wearing a mask. Unfortunately, many of my coworkers have lost family or friends to the virus, giving every one of us a very real and reasonable fear.
I felt so fortunate when I moved up here in September and saw how good everyone was about wearing masks in my new store, compared to where I had been before. We would often get an eye roll when asking someone to pull the mask up over their noses, but it was nothing like what I used to have to deal with during the first 6 months of the pandemic, constantly getting yelled at by our customers for having a line out of the store or asking them to keep a 6-foot distance.
Many of these things happen up here as well, sadly. None of these things are hard, though many people make wearing a mask and keeping a 6-foot distance seem like climbing Mt. Everest. It has been quite unfortunate seeing so many grown adults acting like they can’t do something as selfless and easy as wearing a piece of cloth over their face while spending 15 minutes inside a grocery store. It has baffled and continues to baffle me, though I am not sure why so many things that people do surprise us anymore.
Do you think that essential workers have enjoyed wearing these masks for 40-50 hours a week this entire time? Maybe you would be surprised to find out that no, we do not, and have not enjoyed wearing them. Sure, we are required to wear them while at work, but many of us have a need to be at work while some people in our households have lost their jobs, becoming the only members of the family being able to bring in an income.
It may sound like I am trashing people, but the truth is 90%-95% (that is my own anecdotal speculation, don’t fact check me on this) of our customers have been wonderful and supportive, despite the other 5%-10% of people that can negatively impact our day and sometimes our entire week.
It’s not uncommon for many of us to be shedding tears in the back due to a confrontational customer when all we are trying to do is come to work, do our jobs, and go home to our families without bringing home a potentially deadly virus.
When the CDC announced the news last week that mask mandates could ease back, it wasn’t even 24 hours before we were told we would have to allow maskless individuals in our store, simply by taking their word that the proper time had passed since their shots for them to be considered fully vaccinated. The time between the CDC making that statement and the first person walking into our store without a mask was a real shock for most of us.
On the one hand, it shows that some sort of progress is being made, but many of us never got the time to mentally prepare ourselves for people coming into our store showing their bare faces. We aren’t allowed to verify your vaccination status just like we have never been able to verify whether that dog you bring in is an actual service dog, not just an emotional support animal.
I am writing this today in the hopes of inspiring some people to please, please think of how hard this is for all of us mentally. We knew it was coming someday, but the fact is that Oregon unfortunately put us near the bottom of the vaccination list, just above most of the general population, angering many of us, since we had been working with thousands of people every single day during this continuing pandemic, and some of us are not even fully vaccinated ourselves yet.
Most of all, we never had the chance to mentally prepare ourselves for this next step.
We also know that it would be naive to think that everyone who comes into our store saying that they are vaccinated is actually vaccinated, putting us and other vulnerable customers at risk. The CDC says that we would need around 70% of the population fully vaccinated to reach herd immunity, and while Multnomah County is doing better than the state percentages, Multnomah County is only at around 45% fully vaccinated as of May 16th, well below the desired 70%. Sadly, the same people who weren’t tough enough to muster up any resemblance of strength to put a mask on their face, are the same cowardly people who will lie about getting a vaccine.
I understand that most people are eager to finally go maskless, especially those that are fully vaccinated, but please give us some time and patience, while we grocery store workers have some time to process this change that happens to be the biggest step down we have taken since the beginning days of this pandemic.
These last few days have been incredibly stressful with masked customers confronting maskless customers, creating a tense working environment that already gave many of us the feeling that we are walking on eggshells every day we come to work, well before this recent change. It is bringing back many of the stressors and fears that we all had during the beginning of the pandemic.
We have been asked to do a lot during this last year, and although we know many people have been incredibly thankful and appreciative, we have mostly been left in the afterthought of many, continuing to be the punching bag of people who want to bring their anger and frustrations to the people who are just trying to go to work so they can pay their bills.
We miss the conversations, we miss seeing the smiling faces of our coworkers, we miss being able to hear you properly without the muffled conversations through wearing the masks. Most of us chose this job because we are really good with people and conversation, but these last 15 months have really stretched all of us incredibly thin, causing us to lose some of our best social qualities. We are just as sick of all of it as everyone is, trust me.
All I am asking is that you please be patient with us and give us time to process these changes, whatever that may mean to you, especially considering that we will probably be wearing our masks at work for a lot longer. Please be nice, be respectful, and maybe even genuinely care.