Recent reports of people entering retail outlets without masks on came as a surprise to Brandon Chamber of Commerce vice-president Barry Cooper.
"I think businesses have done a tremendous job of monitoring this, and the very large majority of the population has made an effort to wear masks and protect people in the store," he said, adding he hasn’t noticed many mask-less faces.
He did spot one a while back, and said he took notice of it as something outside of the new normal he’d come to expect.
But UFCW Local 832, which represents employees at both Safeway and Superstore in Brandon, reports more mask-less faces than that.
At one of these two stores, a cashier reported having 27 people go through their till without a mask on their face.
This, union president Jeff Traeger said, is in keeping with reports from grocery stores throughout the province, where an average of a dozen to 25 people without masks are seen per till per shift.
"Our folks were very concerned," he said, adding that with the new highly infectious variants thrown into the mix, people are increasingly worried about whether they’re safe at work.
People flouting public health orders and refusing to wear masks complicate matters.
As it stands, he said members are upset people without masks have been allowed inside the building to begin with.
The current approach of some stores follows the minimum public health guidelines business owners are mandated with following, which reads, "the operator of an indoor public place must ensure that every person who is not wearing a mask while in the indoor public place is given a reminder to do so as soon as practicable."
After encouraging the customer to wear a mask, Traeger said they’re free to go on their way and shop without a mask, and risk being fined should a health inspector be present.
He’s pushing for a no-mask, no-entry, no-exception policy from these businesses, and for those businesses that decline to do so to face a fine.
"They’ve all padded their mattresses and made a heck of a lot of money. The least they could do is make sure the places where the public is shopping and our people are working is as safe as it can be," Traeger said.
There’s no excuse to allow people without masks in a store, Traeger said, adding those who claim to have mask exemptions should be made to use curbside pickup or delivery rather than put everyone in the building at increased risk.
There are numerous businesses in Brandon that maintain this exact mask mandate, Cooper said, adding those that allow mask-less people are likely in a small minority.
"Most businesses are enforcing the mandate, and they enforce it because they perceive they will receive a fine," he said, questioning the notion that businesses aren’t hit with fines when they allow people without masks access to their buildings.
"There are definitely businesses in Brandon that have received fines even though they have done a good job of enforcing the mandate."
One local conspiracy theorist took to social media last month to advertise which businesses in Brandon allow customers in without a mask.
Her list included six businesses she reported having luck in not wearing a mask, adding, "I’m sure there is more."
Although people like her who refuse to wear masks are a minority group in Brandon, Traeger said they’re growing in prominence to varying degrees across the province.
COVID fatigue might be part of it, while he said others have become emboldened by legal action a group of church leaders is taking against the province for its health measures.
Steinbach, Winkler and Carman appear to be popular places for those who refuse to wear masks, where Traeger said one store reported one in five shoppers declining to wear one.
"Our members are getting frustrated and a little bit frightened."
The Sun reached out to managers at both Safeway and Superstore in Brandon, who declined comment and requested we go through media spokespeople at their national headquarters.
A media spokesperson for Loblaw, which owns Superstore, issued a written statement in response to an inquiry:
"The government requires that masks be worn in all indoor public places unless there is a valid exemption. Our stores legally and happily comply, and we expect our customers do the same. To that end, we are pleased that the vast majority of customers respect this, and our teams work with local authorities in the rare cases that they don’t. For those who are unable to wear a mask, we do our best to provide alternatives, including pick up and delivery options."
» Twitter: @TylerClarkeMB