GEORGIA — On the literal hottest day of the year, an afternoon when car thermometers hit triple digits and air conditioners across the South whined, a chipper young greeter outside a Walmart in north Georgia welcomed in a steady stream of mask-wearing customers.
Monday marked the first day of Walmart’s nationwide mask decree: no mask, no service. How would that go over in Georgia, a state whose governor has not only shot down mask mandates but filed a lawsuit against them? That was the quest, and it began … quietly.
“Only one person complained,” said the greeter, who sported a Walmart-blue mask. “She stood over there, yelling and carrying on that she shouldn’t have to wear a mask just to do her shopping.”
So what happened?
“She put on a mask and went inside.”
Georgia governor: Masks infringe on businesses’ rights
Americans of all political stripes pretty much agree that it’s unhealthy to sneeze in someone’s face, that it’s impolite to spit in their food. Democrats and Republicans alike wear seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Conservatives and liberals both stop at red lights to allow others to pass through intersections.
But somehow, in the midst of the worst health crisis any of us have ever seen, we’ve gone and politicized mask wearing, transforming what ought to be a basic health issue — don’t get sick, don’t get others sick — into some sort of strangely reasoned referendum on government tyranny and constitutional rights.
Georgia doesn’t have the positive daily test numbers of Florida, Texas or Arizona, but it’s the standard-bearer in the growing War on Masks. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, has signed an executive order barring municipalities from having mask ordinances stricter than the state, and has also filed suit against the city of Atlanta over its mask ordinance.
Kemp, who was one of the first governors to reopen his state in April, has turned mask-wearing in Georgia into an overtly political issue, even as positive test results have spiked across the state. Fellow conservative governors in Alabama and Arizona have enacted mask regulations, and the CDC has affirmed that “cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities,” but Kemp has remained undeterred in his goal of keeping mask-wearing a recommendation rather than a mandate.
In announcing the lawsuit against the city of Atlanta, Kemp tweeted that the suit was filed “on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times.”
Many of the largest entities who do business in Georgia, however, are clearly deciding that they’ll make their own judgments on how best to protect the health of their employees and customers. (Gov. Kemp’s office has not responded to repeated inquiries from Yahoo News for comment on the mask mandates of private companies within Georgia.)
Walmart: No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service
Walmart, which has over 5,000 stores nationwide, has joined a coterie of other major corporations, including Best Buy, Target, Apple and Starbucks, in mandating mask usage for anyone who walks through their doors. It’s an update of the classic No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service line, which no one in history has ever filtered through a political lens.
It’s also not, despite what some screaming amateur constitutional scholars on social media try to proclaim, a violation of anyone’s constitutional rights. The moment Walmart’s customers step onto Walmart’s private property, they’re playing by Walmart’s rules.
And for the most part, Walmart customers from the foothills of the Appalachians to the shadow of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, from the northern suburbs to south of the airport, all complied with those rules. Sure, some of the masks were worn in a fashion best described as “5-year-old at the end of a long Halloween night,” hanging from chins or covering only the mouth, but still … universal mask coverage is universal mask coverage.
Same store, new rules
It says something about the state our country is in right now that everyone I informed of this article before setting out to research it warned of the possibility that I’d get drawn into some sort of enraged-customer brawl. Part of that’s due to social media amplifying those freakouts, and part of it’s due to the less-than-sterling reputation of a segment of the Walmart customer base.
But here’s the truth, like it or not: Walmart’s got a strong handle on the whole public health/shopping equation. Customers enter through a new queue line and must pass a black-shirted “health ambassador” before entering the store. The health ambassador does stop every single person not wearing a mask — I kept mine in my pocket as I approached one, just to test the system, and got stopped — so if you’re going into a Walmart without a mask, you know full well you’re defying the company’s decree.
What happens then? Well, it depends on how much of a fuss the maskless customer wants to make. One unmasked gentleman I observed pulled out his phone right before the queue and tried the old “can’t talk, I’m on the phone” maneuver, but he was turned back. Others were less amenable to the ambassadors’ decrees.
“I’ve been screamed at this morning, they’re cussing me out, and I’m trying to tell people, ‘It’s just my job,’ ” said one ambassador at an in-town store. “If they keep going, I just ...” and she jabbed a thumb in the direction of the two police officers stationed nearby.
(Update: Since the initial publication of this article, I’ve heard multiple stories of ambassadors just letting customers walk into stores without masks. I’ve reached out to Walmart for comment, but let’s be honest: Nobody wants to be the target in a social media tantrum video, and “bouncer” isn’t in most Walmart employees’ job descriptions.)
Inside every store, you’ll find masks, hand sanitizer and other cleaning products right at the entryway. Aisles are clearly marked as one-way, and signs on the floor show where to stand for proper social distancing. It is, by all reasonable measures, a coherent multi-state coronavirus response strategy.
It’s also a bit of preemptive tail-covering. Coronavirus lawsuits are coming before long, as individuals try to pin the blame for their infection on outside entities. But even though such lawsuits have a flimsy-at-best chance of success, corporations know the best defense is anticipatory offense.
“Certainly, by requiring [masks], it’s one step toward avoiding any negligence claim [from a customer],” says Terry Long, an Alpharetta, Georgia-based attorney. “I doubt that someone would have a very good case [against Walmart], but it is untested waters. Stores and schools are going to want to err on the side of caution, and most of them are going by CDC guidelines as a demonstration of lack of negligence.”
Get in, get out
Aside from anecdotal evidence, everybody observed on Monday in Walmarts across Atlanta pretty much behaved themselves. In the course of a six-hour, 150-mile, multiple-Walmart journey across Atlanta, I did not observe any tantrums or shouts of defiance, and as of 10 p.m. Eastern on Monday night, no new Walmart outbreaks had bubbled up on social media.
That’ll change, surely — someone is going to get all hopped up at the idea they have to wear a mask to pick up some socks, or whatever, and it’ll get splashed all over Twitter. But the vast majority of Walmart’s customers — like literally every single one of the hundreds I saw inside stores on Monday — will wear the mask, whether to protect themselves, protect others, or, well … because they really need those socks.
“This is the way to do business now,” one ambassador said. “It’s how it’s going to be from now on.” (Note: This is not official Walmart policy.)
One interesting sidelight of The Great Mask Debate: nobody wants to talk on the record. Nobody. Granted, Walmart employees have a valid reason for keeping their names out of the press; they want to keep their jobs, and they do that by letting corporate handle communications, like this:
“As a company, Walmart has encouraged customers to wear protective facial coverings for the last several months,” Walmart said in a statement provided to Yahoo News. “Through a new role, store health ambassadors, we’ll continue informing customers about the benefits of wearing protective coverings, whether it be for their safety as explained by the CDC, or by orders issued from elected officials.”
But shoppers have no such restrictions on giving their names. Even so, I’ve done countless “person-on-the-street” interviews, and I’ve never seen people as skittish and unwilling to talk as this — not during protests, not in championship-losing locker rooms.
There’s plenty of blame for that to go around: politicians who incite their faithful, social-media commenters who fan the flames, media that picks and chooses whom to deify and whom to destroy. It’s no wonder those people on the street just want to get their shopping done and sidestep the drama from politicians, the media and Facebook.
Still, if you’re looking for hope, it’s right there: people going about their day-to-day lives, and doing it in a socially responsible way, in accordance with what scientific experts say is the best plan.
A young woman, pushing her cart to her car at one Walmart, said she’d been wearing a mask for “months.”
“The doctors prescribed it,” she said.
Of course, she didn’t want to give her name.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.