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Grocery store employees petition SLO Co. supervisors to mandate masks in supermarkets

Posted at 9:36 AM, Apr 28, 2020

The increased risk that grocery store workers face when customers don't wear masks is motivating some workers to petition the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to stipulate a mandatory countywide mask order for all customers who shop during the pandemic.

Though some grocery stores have signs posted instructing customers to wear mask, not all who enter these stores abide by the rules and not all grocery stores require masks.

A media representative for Von's said the grocery chain has implemented several steps to ensure the safety of customers and staff, including one-directional travel through the store, social distancing guidelines at checkout, face masks for staff, and cleaning supplies.

But even still, the threat of coronavirus weighs heavy on the minds of grocery store employees, who have to interface with hundreds of customers each day.

"Tensions are high and I don't feel safe going to work anymore," Lori Ralls, who works as a checker at a Grover Beach grocery store, said.

Ralls is now on a month-long unpaid leave, which she took voluntarily over growing concerns that she would become infected with the virus while on the clock.

"They did install a Plexiglas window but it doesn't cover it," Ralls said. "The customer has to stand to the side of it and often times, they are two or three feet from my face."

Though her store has posted a sign on the front entrance asking customers to wear masks, Ralls said many customers ignore the sign and come inside to shop without a face covering.

"There's a sign up front but I do see people without (masks)," Ralls' colleague, April Ramirez, said. "I kind of feel like it's a slap in the face because we are here every day, not just to put food on our table but for our customers."

Ramirez has diabetes, which elevates her risk for coronavirus complications.

Each time she clocks in, Ramirez worries not only for her own health, but the health of her family.

"At the beginning of this, it didn't bother me," Ramirez said. "But now, as it goes on and more people are dying, it's very scary.

That fear is motivating Ramirez and Ralls to petition the SLO County Board of Supervisors to impose a countywide order mandating all customers wear masks at grocery stores.

"I think that most people don't realize, when you wear your mask, you're protecting other people," Ralls said.

Though many grocery store employees, including Ramirez and Ralls, receive an added $2 per hour to compensate for the increased risk, Ramirez said the solution is clear.

"If you won't wear the mask, don't come," Ramirez said.

Dr. Penny Borenstein, who works for SLO County Public Health, said she is committed to taking whatever action is needed to keep the infection rate low but she does not believe mandating face masks in grocery stores is necessary at this time.

"We will go as far as we need to go in order to maintain the good results that we've seen in terms of disease spread," Borenstein said Monday. "Therefore I haven't felt the need at this moment in time to move forward with a mandated mask order for any sector of our community. I retain that possibility should we need to move there."