New Mexico businesses navigate COVID-19 public health orders and customer reactions
COVID-19 public health orders require businesses to ask more of customers. When customers don't wish to comply, workers bear the brunt.
LAS CRUCES - Through the months New Mexico has been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have been asking customers to cooperate with emergency public health orders to wear masks and stay away from other people.
Business may also have to enforce tight occupancy limits. New Mexico's current public health orders limit the occupancy of different businesses to as little as 25 percent of their fire code capacity.
Sometimes customers don't want to cooperate, which forces employees and local business owners to calculate the risks of insisting on compliance against the possibility of an unpleasant, or dangerous, confrontation.
A woman in a Las Cruces Walgreens pharmacy was struck in the face by a fellow customer in June after she confronted him about wearing a mask. Stories of customers angered by new COVID-19 requirements in retail stores and restaurants around the country have grabbed headlines in the past few months.
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For that reason, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommendations including prominent signage and overhead announcements, offering options to customers, and training employees in conflict resolution.
And Cody Johnson, a spokesman for New Mexico's "Safe Certified" training program in best practices for businesses in the midst of COVID-19, said, "Information about conflict resolution specific to this issue is shared through the resource hub for registrants that complete the program."
'I didn't hire you to be police enforcers'
One local business owner made it clear to his employees that this was not their responsibility.
Bernie Digman owns Milagro Coffee y Espresso, which has sat on University Avenue near the New Mexico State University campus since 1998.
The popular coffee house is not offering any indoor service even though it could. Instead, customers place their orders at the entrance or at the store's drive-thru window. Milagro's front patio is open for seating at tables spaced far apart.
"The reason we haven't opened up is I am not, unfortunately, seeing a level of compliance in the community that makes me want to put my employees in that situation," Digman said.
"When I go around picking up supplies, going to get repair parts, that kind of stuff, I see a lot of people still who are not wearing masks," he continued. "I'm very uncomfortable with setting up any sort of situation where my employees might have to ask somebody to put a mask on. I don't think that's their job."
At Cowtown Boots on El Paseo Road, store manager Lise Boyd said the changing COVID-19 regulations have not chased customers away. She even reported an increase in sales during the pandemic.
“We do have some people that say that, since we do enforce masks here, we’re going to lose our business and that they will never come back,” Boyd said. “I think we have more people who feel more comfortable coming here because it is safe and clean.”
Boyd said some customers enter the store without a face covering each day, but most put one on when asked.
Once every two weeks or so, however, Boyd said “the awful ones” come along, seeking entry yet refusing to mask up.
In those cases, Boyd said, “We stay behind (the counter). We don’t get out there near the clients. Generally, they just stay at the entrance spewing insults for a few minutes and then they leave.”
Digman said most of Milagro's customers, whether they come to the door or the drive-thru window, are cooperative about wearing masks and maintaining distance. On that score, he said, "We haven't had any problems at all."
The worst incident, he recalled, was a customer who, when reminded by an employee that he needed to wear a mask, responded with a racist remark directed at Asian people. Digman said he sent the customer away.
"I told the staff, 'That's not your job. I didn't hire you to be police enforcers on this kind of a deal," Digman said. "That's something that I will handle myself. They just don't need to put up with that."
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Caught between state and angry customers
Carol Wight of the New Mexico Restaurant Association said food and drink establishments are often caught between personal reactions, often politically oriented, to the state's efforts to curb community spread of a potentially deadly contagious disease.
"They put the restaurants in the middle of this very political situation," Wight said. "I understand where the governor's coming from. She's got a virus that is completely out of control. … People are going out. They're hanging out with their families. They're going out and partying with their friends and they're coming back with COVID. She can't control the individuals and what they do; the only thing she can control is the businesses."
Some national chain stores have required customers at all of their stores to wear masks for months. When it comes to resistant customers, however, the policies are sometimes silent or vague.
The Starbucks corporate policy regarding customers who refuse to cooperate sounds simple:
"Our partners are trained to provide alternative options to customers to order their Starbucks, including ordering at the drive-thru, curbside pickup through the Starbucks app or placing an order for delivery through Starbucks Delivers," a spokeswoman wrote.
When policies do address customer resistance, the recommended procedures often assume the customer is reasonable and peaceful.
The Home Depot chain said store personnel serve as "social distancing captains" to "remind" customers about the face covering requirements and offer free masks as needed.
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Per corporate policy, the company said employees will not "forcibly or physically deny entry" to customers, but if they are combative or repeatedly refuse to comply with safety requirements, Home Depot reserved the possibility of taking "further action" to prevent them from entering.
At Albertsons grocery stores, a corporate spokeswoman said customer noncompliance is handled by offering masks to those who don't have one, educating them about the store's policy and reminding them about delivery and curbside service options.
Albertsons employees may also assist in completing the customer's shopping trip if they claim an exemption to the mask requirement. Under New Mexico public health orders, such claims must be accompanied with a written note from a medical provider.
However, if a customer refuses to comply or leave the store, the spokeswoman said, "We permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk."
The risks for workers are real, as well as a business' bottom line.
The New Mexico Environment Department now publishes a "watch list" of businesses to which state health officials have responded at least twice in a two week period to address workplace infections of COVID-19. Employers are required to report infections to the NMED, and submit to an investigation culminating in guidance on COVID-19 safety practices.
On Thursday, 12 Doña Ana County enterprises were on that list.
And after four responses in a two-week period, certain businesses will be required to shut down for 14 days.
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Concerns about contact tracing logs
Under recently amended health orders, food and drink establishments are now required to complete the state certification program before the end of October in order to continue offering indoor dining, and they now must request diners to enter their contact information into a log to be kept for three weeks, to assist with contact tracing in case of an exposure at the business.
Wight, the state restaurant association CEO, said that customers and restaurants alike have had to keep up with rules that change frequently during the pandemic, and she worried that contact tracing logs might backfire — against businesses rather than the state.
"Because we're in the service business, it puts us in an awkward position," Wight said.
While customers may be used to restaurants and breweries enforcing liquor laws, Wight expressed concern that compiling personal information for a government agency might be a bridge too far for many patrons.
ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson also saw problems with the customer logs.
"While we understand that requiring restaurants to collect and retain diners’ personal information is aimed at improving contact tracing, the policy does raise privacy concerns,” he wrote in a statement.
“To ensure people’s privacy is not infringed upon, data disclosure should be voluntary rather than mandatory," Simonson continued. "Appropriate safeguards should also be in place to ensure that business logs are not susceptible to disclosure beyond the tightly limited purposes of contact tracing and never disclosed to immigration agents, law enforcement, or other parties. Finally, any data collection policy must be enforced in an equitable manner and should not mandate showing identification. The elderly, poor people, and Native Americans are less likely to have official forms of identification than other groups.”
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Wight pointed out that there might be pitfalls to the logs, such as customers putting down "Daffy Duck" for their names unless businesses take the time to check identification.
"Here's my thing: If you don't want to give your name for a contact tracing log, then don't dine indoors," Wight said. "Dine outside. Take take-out. Get delivery. But help out restaurants. … It's not our rule, so please don't take it out on the restaurant owner or any of the employees."