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Union: COVID-19 mask mandates at Spokane-area grocery stores ‘not rampantly violated’

Bob Hayes, left, and Kirt Kring wear their face masks after shopping at WinCo Foods on Sept. 3 in Spokane Valley.  (DAN PELLE)
Bob Hayes, left, and Kirt Kring wear their face masks after shopping at WinCo Foods on Sept. 3 in Spokane Valley. (DAN PELLE)

Spokane Valley sheriff’s deputies are still looking for a man who allegedly threw a bottle at a local grocery store worker after the store refused him service for not wearing a mask.

Deputies said the shopper threatened the employee at the Sprague Avenue Grocery Outlet with a shard from the bottle, which shattered upon hitting the ground, before fleeing with approximately $15 worth of merchandise. He could face multiple felonies stemming from the Jan. 15 dispute.

Mask mandates at Spokane-area grocery stores have occasionally led to similarly heated encounters in the months since COVID-19 restrictions took effect, said Eric Renner, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439. The union represents nearly 8,000 industry workers across parts of the Inland Northwest.

“For the most part, we’ve been able to control,” Renner said. “These instances, they’re not really commonplace, but they do happen. … It may be worse in rural areas than the metropolitan areas. It’s not rampantly violated, but it is violated.”

The state of Washington requires face coverings in indoor public settings or outdoors when social distancing is unachievable. People with a medical condition, mental illness or a disability that prevent them from wearing a covering are exempt. When that’s the case, people are not required to validate their conditions.

Stores are instead asked to offer alternative service options, including online shopping and curbside pickup if available.

“If somebody comes in and they say that they have a medical reason, it’s pretty hard to argue with that,” Renner said. “The people that medically don’t need a mask, it’s a very minute number.”

The union “got ahead of the curve” when the mandates were put in place, Renner said, airing commercials advocating mask usage. And for the most part, people have been compliant, he said.

“The stores we represent,” Renner said of physical altercations, “most of them have just taken the position that if it escalates to that level, they try to defuse it before it gets that way.”

In a statement, a Grocery Outlet spokesperson said the employee struck by the bottle – who declined on-scene medical attention – has returned to work.

A representative from the Sprague Avenue location declined to comment.

“Grocery Outlet has more than 375 independently owned and operated stores across the U.S. and many reside within different city and state COVID regulations,” Layla Kasha, chief marketing officer for Grocery Outlet, said in a statement. “That said, we work closely with all of our independent operators to ensure we are abiding by all local ordinances, including the Spokane mandatory mask policy involved in this incident.”

Asked to explain how their workers are trained to handle mask enforcement, a company representative for Yoke’s Fresh Market declined to comment. Representatives for Kroger, the parent company of Fred Meyer, did not return a request for comment.

A Safeway spokesperson did not speak directly to the mask enforcement procedures, though reiterated the company’s COVID-19 protocols, including plexiglass barriers, social distancing decals and enhanced sanitation routines.

“Throughout the pandemic, the health and safety of everyone who walks through our doors has been our top priority,” Safeway said in a statement. “We continue to follow the current recommended (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, including requiring everyone to wear face coverings or masks in all our stores.”

At Rosauers Supermarkets, the process starts at the front door, where anyone who doesn’t have a mask is offered one, said Rosauers CEO Jeff Philipps.

If they cite a medical exemption, Philipps said shoppers are informed of online shopping options. If they decline, they are offered a sign for their shopping cart to signal their exemption to others.

“If they blow past us, we’re just not in a position to have our employees get into a confrontation with them,” Philipps said.

Those situations have been infrequent, Philipps said. He said employees have tracked the number of customers who have complied with face covering policies over the past three to four months, netting a compliance rate of more than 99%.

Early on in the pandemic, Rosauers tried to achieve 100% compliance by stopping anybody without a mask at the front door and denying them service, Philipps said. The effort sometimes resulted in physical altercations between shoppers and employees – and, in one instance, products thrown through a plate-glass window at one particular location.

“I would say that the vast majority of customers – over 99% of them – are wanting to do what they feel is right, which is to wear a mask and adhere to the policies the governor has asked us to, with rare exception,” he said. “We’re enforcing that to the best of our ability.”

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