For weeks now Hawaii has had the lowest per capita COVID-19 infection rate of any state in the nation, and apparently some shoppers have decided the worst of the coronavirus threat has passed. Local retailers are reporting some unpleasant recent exchanges with customers who refuse to wear their masks in stores and are then asked to leave.
Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, told the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness that retailers post signs announcing that masks are required in their stores, but “people just don’t want to do it, and they’re fighting back now.”
“They’ll walk into the store with a mask, 10 feet in they’ll take it off; we kindly remind them and then they get confrontational,” Yamaki told the committee Monday. “The other thing that we’re hearing, too, is ‘If the president doesn’t wear a mask, why should I?’”
That puts the retailers in an awkward spot because Gov. David Ige’s Ninth Supplemental Proclamation related to the COVID-19 emergency specifically instructs employees and customers to wear masks and engage in social distancing. Yamaki said the order is written in a way that requires the retailers to enforce it.
“We don’t think the burden should continue to be on the retailer and the business,” Yamaki said. “People need to have personal responsibility, too, and they need to have some consequences to their actions as well.”
Christine Reed, who with her husband, David, owns a small Hilo bookstore called Basically Books, said most of her customers are willing to cooperate, and the mask requirement usually isn’t a problem. But she recalled one woman with two children late last week who walked in with a mask and then partially removed it so the mask was danging from one ear.
The woman announced that the World Health Organization had lifted the mask requirement, and offered to pull up the proof on her phone. “We just said, ‘We’re sorry, in our county and in our state, the rules are you have to wear a face covering, and that’s how it has to be,’” Reed recalled.
“She put her mask back over her face,” and the two children pulled their sweaters over their faces in an effort to comply, Reed said.
Still, “we have really not had a lot of pushback here, and I think it’s because of our community,” she said. “I think our community in Hilo is just more connected, and I think people get that it’s for the safety of the whole community.”
Alan Oshima, who was appointed by Gov. David Ige as the state “economic recovery navigator,” told the House committee Monday, “I think where people are right now is that we’ve done such a good job of public health that people are relaxing.”
Oshima agreed that it needs to be conveyed to the public that the key to keeping the infection rate low is personal responsibility — meaning social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks.
“I think we’ve done a great job so far, but the communications can get clearer, and people really have to start stressing that personal responsibility, because we all see it,” he said “People are relaxing.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Yamaki said. “Retailers are trying to do our best to keep everybody safe, whether it’s your customers or your employees, and then there’s these people who think they’re entitled, they don’t have to do it.”
One bright spot: Yamaki said some local people are shaming the scofflaws by posting unflattering profiles of violators on social media. “We see it after the fact. For us it’s having the community come together and say, ‘Hey, if we have to do it, you have to do it, too, because we all want to be safe.’”