Requiring customers to wear masks ‘easier said than done'

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Viral videos and reports of customer outbursts over mask requirements in retail stores have become another part of the new normal as the coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S.

With upset consumers on either side of the debate, dealers are grappling with whether to put their own mandates in place and how to handle any resulting customer protest. Many auto retailers have required employees to wear masks since spring. More of them are now telling customers they must wear them, too, as public health recommendations grow stronger and local and state governments increasingly require masks in retail outlets.

But there is fallout — both from people upset when others don’t wear masks and customers who resent being asked to.

Diehl Automotive Group President Corina Diehl told Automotive News she has fielded at least one complaint on social media from a customer upset that others weren’t wearing masks when the person visited one of her dealerships in suburban Pittsburgh.

Diehl makes masks available to customers and requires employees to wear them but said she does not mandate them for customers.

She is concerned in part about customers with medical conditions arguing that such policies are discriminatory.

“Who knows what underlying issues they have?” Diehl said.

She noted at least one grocery store chain, Giant Eagle, has been sued for its mask-required policy, with the suit alleging it discriminates against people with disabilities. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has implemented a statewide mandate that masks be worn by everyone inside a business but granted exceptions for those with medical conditions and for children under 2.

Diehl also said guidelines in the Americans with Disabilities Act say she cannot turn away customers who refuse to wear a mask. But there appears to be some misunderstanding on that front. The U.S. Department of Justice said June 30 that the federal law “does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has asked Americans to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, which according to Johns Hopkins University had caused over 152,000 deaths in the U.S. as of late last week. CDC Director Robert Redfield said July 14 that the outbreak could be brought “under control” in four to eight weeks if all Americans wore masks. According to the CDC, the disease spreads mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or raises their voice. Masks can block those droplets from reaching others.

Confusion about recommendations by the nation’s top medical experts and the politicization of the extra protection have made mask mandates challenging to implement.

Travis Vance, a lawyer with Fisher Phillips, a labor and employment law firm in North Carolina that works with dealerships throughout the country, said dealerships should comply with whatever local or state mandate they are under. Fisher Phillips has issued guidance that dealerships generally should require face coverings for customers and employees.

But if customers come in without masks, they should not just be thrown out or barraged with questions.

“You want to just stay quiet, calm and remind them of the policy,” Vance said. “And then if they just refuse to wear one and you want to enforce it, then you just see if there’s alternative ways that you can meet their needs.”

That could mean working with the customer outside the store or suggesting a potential sale be conducted online.

“You got to figure out what works best for your dealership, balancing meeting customers’ needs and expectations with meeting local and state guidelines with keeping a safe work environment for your employees,” Vance added. “And it’s a lot easier said than done.”

Several dealership groups have put customer mask mandates in place, including Asbury Automotive Group on July 1.

“For folks who don’t want to wear a mask, we’re offering pickup and delivery services,” CEO David Hult told Automotive News. “We have gotten a lot of positive feedback from consumers that this is a place you want to shop at. They’re all wearing masks.”

Dan Clara, Asbury senior vice president of operations, said he was aware of just two occasions where customers questioned the need to wear a mask. In at least one of those instances, a mask was provided to the customer, and the issue was not pushed further.

At Sonic Automotive Inc.’s franchised dealerships and EchoPark used-only stores, customers must wear masks “where it’s mandated by the government,” said Sonic CEO David Smith.

“We’re trying to help stop the spread just like everyone else,” he said.

Other big dealership groups have held off on mandates for customers, though many try to encourage mask use. Both Group 1 Automotive Inc. and Penske Automotive Group said last week they are adhering to local and state mandates.

As of July 24, CarMax requests that customers wear masks inside all locations and noted that many of its stores are in locations where government mandates require face coverings for customers.

AutoNation Inc., the largest U.S. new-vehicle retailer, with 230 stores, instituted an employee mask policy in mid-April but does not require customers to wear masks. “We ask, we suggest, we provide, but it’s not mandatory,” CEO Mike Jackson said.

So far, the National Automobile Dealers Association has left it up to state and local dealer associations to provide guidance for how dealerships should handle the issue of customers and masks.

NADA has provided general information on COVID-19 safety protocols and is in the midst of updating its guide “with stronger language based on more recent federal pronouncements,” said Jonathan Collegio, NADA senior vice president of public affairs. But it’s not clear whether the new guidance will recommend that dealerships require masks be worn by all customers.

Outside the auto industry, many national retailers such as Walmart, Starbucks, Home Depot and Costco have implemented nationwide mask mandates. On July 15, the National Retail Federation, the trade association representing U.S. retailers, encouraged its members to adopt mask requirements for customers.

At least one automaker has sought to give its dealers some direction. In a video late last month, Ford Motor Co. reminded its retailers to adhere to state mandates regarding masks and social distancing. And in states without mandates, Ford strongly encouraged that dealers, their employees and customers wear them.

“We just felt it was really important to get back out to our dealers, strongly reinforce the need for diligence, to safeguard their employees and customers,” said Mark LaNeve, Ford’s head of marketing, sales and service. “Specifically, we’re asking them to continue having employees wear masks, practice social distancing and do temperature scans where possible.”

LaNeve said he was not aware of any reports of dealerships not complying with state orders on masks.

Brian Benstock, general manager of Paragon Honda, requires anyone entering his store to wear a mask. Benstock said he has not had any confrontations over the requirement at his Queens location — New York City was at the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak in the spring.

Still, he has sought to take a playful approach. His store has a sign on the door that says, “You’re beautiful. But a mask is required here at Paragon Honda.”

Benstock said he personally knows “at least 50” people who have been affected by the virus and has no qualms about losing sales over the policy.

“There’s no 100 percent safety net for any of us,” Benstock said. “But I think every reasonable precaution you can take should be taken.”

Michael Martinez contributed to this report.

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