A week has passed since metropolitan Melbourne re-entered lockdown to battle a second wave of COVID-19, yet Victoria has continued to record daily triple-digit case increases for 10 days straight.
While many retailers and restaurants in the city have been forced to close their doors once again, those that remain open do so at their own risk.
Since March, retailers across the country have asked shoppers to maintain physical distance, wash and sanitise their hands prior to entering the store, while upping their own sanitation practices and limiting the number of shoppers at any one time.
But with COVID-19 showing no signs of abating, many employers are looking to take further precautions, including a requirement to wear face masks, to protect both staff and customers in ‘the new normal’.
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On Friday, Victoria’s chief health officer recommended that adults living in areas under Stage 3 restrictions wear a face mask when outside the home where it is difficult to keep 1.5 metres apart from other people.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that recent studies show that “even when factoring in imperfections and human error, wearing face masks can reduce transmission of coronavirus by around 60 per cent.”
“Before this study, advice around the effectiveness of face masks in reducing transmission has been contradictory and lacking in evidence,” he said.
The guidelines suggest that cloth masks or surgical masks should be worn in these instances, but “there will be no enforcement on the use of face masks”.
“You will not be fined if you don’t wear one,” a statement from the Victorian government read.
On Monday,, McDonald’s announced that all of its employees in the Melbourne metropolitan and Mitchell Shire areas are now required to wear face masks at work.
“In line with the recommendation from the Victorian government, and out of an abundance of caution, we now require employees to wear face masks during any shift at our restaurants in the Melbourne metropolitan and Mitchell Shire areas,” a McDonald’s spokesperson said.
“We are providing employees with three-ply surgical masks, as to not affect the supply of N95 masks, used in hospitals.”
The fast food giant was forced to close a number of restaurants across Melbourne in May when one of its delivery drivers tested positive to COVID-19.
Rival restaurant chain KFC also choose to make face masks mandatory for team members in these areas.
“It’s a challenging time for us all, and we’ll keep monitoring and following updates and guidelines from all government health departments,” a KFC spokesperson said.
Will the supermarkets be next?
The advice from health officials is that physical distancing and regular hand washing remain the best defence against COVID-19. But in the confines of retail stores and supermarkets, ensuring physical distancing between shoppers has proven difficult.
In March the ACCC granted permission for Australia’s biggest supermarkets to work together to overcome the challenges of Covid-19, and this week extended that ruling for another year.
Coles, Woolworths, Metcash and Aldi took a united approach to sanitation measures, and on Sunday issued an updated statement on their position.
“As masks are optional, it’s not compulsory to wear one in our stores in these areas. However, if you are in any doubt, or would simply feel more comfortable, please do wear a mask when you come into store. This is the same guidance we have given to our teams, and we have provided them with masks to wear as an option,” the statement read.
“While we welcome you wearing a mask if you choose, please don’t be judgemental of others who choose not to, whether team members or other customers. It is an individual decision and we ask that you respect the choice of others.”
A spokesperson for Woolworths told Inside FMCG that the retailer has been supplying masks to store team members since April, but they are not required to wear them.
“We continue to make masks available and have passed on the latest government advice to our Victorian team members,” the spokesperson said.
Aldi has taken a similar approach but declined to comment on whether it would look at making face masks mandatory. Coles did not respond when contacted for comment.
QUT professor of marketing and consumer behaviour Gary Mortimer told Inside FMCG that face masks present “a bit of a conundrum” for retailers.
“Shoppers have become anxious when visiting shopping centres and retail stores … and while some shoppers may see [face masks’ as a sign of effective hygiene measures being implemented, others may see these as a sign the team member is unwell,” Mortimer said.
“There is still ongoing confusion as to who should wear masks, as masks have not yet become mandatory to wear. The other issue is that shopping is essentially a social activity and masks will obscure that friendly smile from a sale assistance and possibly make the entire shopping experience anonymous.”
Is consumer backlash over face masks likely?
Walmart, Kroger and Starbucks are among the major retailers in the US now requiring customers to wear face masks in store. And while many customers appreciate their efforts to keep people safe, some have clashed with store staff over the requirement.
Viral videos online show heated arguments and even physical scuffles when customers have reacted angrily to being asked to wear a mask.
Dominique Lamb, CEO of the National Retail Association, told Inside FMCG that if cases continue to increase by high numbers a requirement to wear face masks “could absolutely be implemented”.
“We know from the previous lowdown, when some brands choose to provide masks to staff, some customers took exception to this; it wasn’t favourable and some found it difficult to understand what [staff] were saying,” Lamb said.
“But the situation in Victoria is very different.”
While it might not be favourable for consumers, Lamb said she wouldn’t expect the same backlash from consumers that there has been in the US if masks become mandatory.
“Australian consumers, and our retailers, are very aware of how serious this issue is so it’s unlikely that we will see similar themes. People want to keep their families safe,” she said.
So what is the legal requirement for retailers?
Employers have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment for staff, “so far as is reasonably practicable”. If an employer considers face masks necessary to protect workers, they can lawfully direct employees to wear them, according to Georgie Chapman, partner at HR Legal.
“We consider that an employer can in certain circumstances lawfully direct employees to wear face masks, where it considers it necessary and appropriate in order to minimise the risk of exposure to Covid-19. This will be particularly important in environments where there is a high degree of customer interaction and/or if physical distancing is not practicable,” Chapman told Inside FMCG.
“As an alternative, employers may consider providing the option to staff if they wish to wear a mask, in circumstances where other measures may be sufficient to manage the risk of Covid-19.”
If an employer directs employees to wear a face mask, employers may be obligated to provide, pay for, or reimburse employees for the costs of face masks, Chapman explained. They are also required to provide instructions to staff on how to properly wear and remove a face mask.
While Chapman said this will be particularly relevant in Victorian areas currently under State 3 restrictions, it also relevant where there is a spike in community transmission.
“In other parts of Australia, this may not be a necessary or proportionate response at this stage, but may be considered as the situation in each region develops.”
This article was first published by Inside Retail.