Wide Variance In Mask-Wearing Among Grocery Store Employees And Customers In Cape Fear Region

May 7, 2020

Depending on which grocery store you visit in the Cape Fear region, some employees might wear face coverings.  Some might not.  Costco is a notable exception in requiring some kind of nose and mouth covering for both employees and customers.  But as WHQR uncovered, the variance might be due to a common misunderstanding about the mask’s purpose. 

Bobby Dorsch manages the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Leland.  As soon as the guidelines for retailers included plexi-glass dividers at cashier stations, Dorsch found what he needed at a Home Depot store and built the dividers himself.   

"I got those up pretty early on in the process."

Like other grocery store chains, his Piggly Wiggly has markings on the floor to indicate 6-foot intervals.  And Dorsch says he encourages his staff to wear masks. 

"Although we weren’t forcing anybody to do it.  Some people – it just really bothered them."

Other grocery store chains tell WHQR they are requiring their employees to wear masks – including Harris Teeter, Costco, The Fresh Market, and Lowes Foods.  In a message posted on its website, Food Lion says it provides masks to employees but does not require their use. 

Dr. Paul Kamitsuka is Hospital Epidemiologist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Infectious Diseases Consultant for Wilmington Health.  He’s impressed by Costco’s strict policies regarding masks.

"The appearance of employees wearing masks really does send a very good message that this retail establishment is taking very seriously the social distancing that is so necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19."

During a random sampling of stores in Wilmington and Leland, WHQR found a broad range of practices – even within the same chain.  In one Food Lion store, only one employee wore a mask.  And while most visible employees at Harris Teeter and Lowes Foods had them on, it wasn’t unusual to see those masks pulled down off the nose and mouth. 

Lisa Brown is Public Health Preparedness Coordinator for New Hanover County.  She says the workers behind deli counters, for example, may be six feet away from customers, but that’s not a good reason to pull off the mask. 

"Does that person interact with other staff members? Are there possibly other people that could be exposed? So in addition to their interaction with the public, you also have to think about is, is there a possibility of transmission happening in that place of employment? The more Covid-19 that we have just in the community, the more it's allowed to spread, then the harder it becomes to keep it out of those really vulnerable populations."

In an email to WHQR, The Fresh Market says wearing a mask is about far more than protecting one’s own health.

They write, “This is what is recommended by the CDC to stop the spread of coronavirus by individuals who may be asymptomatic.  If wearing a face covering and following physical distancing guidance is what it takes to help open back up our communities and businesses, it does not make sense why [these] individuals would not want to comply.”

So whom does the mask protect?  Dr. Kamitsuka says non-medical-grade masks don’t do much to protect the wearer.  But because anyone could be an asymptomatic carrier, masks protect other people. 

"The predominant role of the mask is what we call source control. And so all of us, when we talk or cough or sneeze, we expel droplets and the mask catches those. So we protect others from us."

Without widespread testing, it’s impossible to know who might be spreading the virus unknowingly.  And, according to Lisa Brown, even a negative test is not an all-clear. 

"It might mean that they didn't have enough of the virus yet to be picked up through that diagnostic test."

And, if the patient has no symptoms, the sensitivity of the test goes way down, says Dr. Kamitsuka. 

"Even with a negative test, you can't be totally reassured that a person doesn't have Covid-19."

Which is why, he says, everyone should think of themselves as a possible carrier of the virus. 

"It's really sort of like the golden rule of Covid-19 prevention, you know, do unto others as you would like others to do unto you.  That's why we wear masks and if all of us do that, all of us do the social distancing and hygiene and disinfecting touch surfaces, then we help each other and that's how we get through the pandemic as unscathed as possible."

Piggly Wiggly’s Bobby Dorsch says he’s heard a few complaints from customers about the mask issue, but mostly he says, people are just glad they’re open. He says he wishes everyone would wear masks. 

"In my opinion, it wasn’t right to force people to wear them."

Because a government body hasn’t mandated it, Dorsch says he doesn’t feel he has the right to do it. 

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Phase One of North Carolina’s reopening starts Friday, May 8th at 5 PM.  Medical experts and state and local officials agree that whether the state is able to move to Phase Two in two or three weeks depends a great deal on how closely people adhere to the CDC’s Covid-19 guidelines.

Diagnostic tests for the novel coronavirus are ramping up in New Hanover County and across the state.  But a negative test does not give the all-clear. 

Dr. Paul Kamitsuka, Epidemiologist for New Hanover Regional Medical Center, says the sensitivity of the test goes way down if a person is asymptomatic.

"Even with a negative test, you can't be totally reassured that a person doesn't have Covid-19."

Lisa Brown is Public Health Preparedness Coordinator for New Hanover County.  She says, the best way to protect everyone, is for everyone to wear a mask whenever they’re in public.   

"If you’re not worried about your own personal health or that you are at risk, keep in mind when you're wearing that mask, you are helping protect everybody in the community. That is just so important to understand."

Brown says these next two weeks will give officials a chance to see if the metrics – Covid-19 hospitalizations, emergency room visits with Covid-like symptoms, the number of positive cases, and the percentage of positive cases – are still trending in the right direction before they decide on moving to Phase Two.