As the catastrophic reopening of US businesses has led to a predictable explosion in COVID-19 infections and deaths, even some of the most reactionary state and local governments have abandoned their opposition to safety mandates. Texas governor Greg Abbott had initially prohibited cities and counties from requiring mask use, but on July 2, he issued a statewide mask mandate. The governors of Alabama and Arkansas have since done the same, despite backlash from those in the party insisting masks are somehow taking away their freedom.
The governors’ about-face doesn’t stem from grief at the mass death among their constituents. It’s a reflection of the changed position of big business, large portions of which have decided that a rampaging virus jeopardizes profits. Business has been forced into this realization by increasing disruption by workers and consumers.
One problem for business is that Trump’s propaganda can’t fool everyone. Many customers simply will not resume buying nonessential goods until the virus threat has truly abated. The concern about “lower levels of consumer confidence” was cited in a July 2 business letter to Trump and state governors urging them to adopt uniform mask standards, lest the explosion of infections leads to “irreparable economic harm” to their businesses. The letter came from a broad coalition of corporate interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and major retail industry lobbies. (The American Council of Life Insurers also signed, for obvious reasons.)
Some organized consumer resistance has emerged, as well. A minority of customers chafes at mask mandates, but other customers are demanding them. The refusal of Texas grocery giant H-E-B to mandate masks in its stores “prompted more than 27,000 people to sign an online petition asking the San Antonio retailer to make masks mandatory for customers.” The petition is a sign that customers’ avoidance of reckless businesses, which to now has been mostly individualized, could soon take the form of organized boycotts.
The July 2 business letter also identified a more acute form of disruption: the “confrontations between customers and employees” over enforcement of mask requirements, visible in online videos that have been viewed millions of times that became prevalent over the summer.
A July 6 letter to state governors from the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and other giants, also stressed this problem and likewise urged the government to enforce uniform mask-wearing mandates. According to the association’s president, it decided to demand statewide enforcement of mask mandates because “retailers are alarmed with the instances of hostility and violence front-line employees are experiencing by a vocal minority of customers.” A recent survey of McDonald’s workers found that 44 percent of workers had been “physically or verbally threatened or abused by customers” when trying to enforce safety rules.
The confrontations between customers and employees reflect the virtually universal failure or unwillingness of retailers and local police to expel mask-less customers, even in states and cities with mandatory mask laws. This unspoken but lucrative policy at first appeared to serve the companies well. It forced employees — most of whom are low-wage workers with inadequate health plans, and largely people of color and women — into the terrible choice of endangering their own health or attempting to enforce the rules without help from management or law enforcement. Workers have had to face violence-prone customers who are ready to fight for their “right” to go mask-less.
In Michigan, where masks are officially mandated, a worker at a Family Dollar was murdered after trying to enforce a mask requirement. According to Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, workers “don’t feel comfortable trying to corral the customer” because “management will take the customer’s side.”
That’s because management actually doesn’t want their workers to enforce mask-wearing, lest it repels some customers.
The retail industry letter says as much: “Leading retailers are requiring employees to wear masks or face coverings during their shift, and we are encouraging customers to do the same” (emphasis added). The CEO of an East Coast grocery chain told a reporter that he has “had to deal with some employees feeling overly empowered and hostile toward customers.” Workers “feeling overly empowered” is an ominous sign for additional reasons, portending dangers like unionization, strikes, and other collective action against the boss.
Business’s goals are clear: to maximize sales and minimize labor costs, which requires keeping the stores open and forcing workers to work at great risk to their health. The retailers’ letter mentions their desire “to move…away from designations like essential/non-essential” — a coy way of saying free reign for employers to force workers to risk their health.
This agenda hit some snags, though. Many customers were still staying away for fear of getting sick, and some were starting to target individual companies for their recklessness. Then the escalating “confrontations between customers and employees” threatened to scare away even more customers, while raising legal risks and the specter that workers’ anger against management could translate into disruptive collective action.
A final problem was the uneven mandates across local jurisdictions, resulting in “mixed messages” to businesses. The business letters complained that the “patchwork of local mandates” and “variation in current mandatory mask requirements” were adding to the conflict at retail outlets, and also “place the enforcement burden on companies.” Two weeks prior to the Texas governor’s about-face, a San Antonio judge had acceded to local constituencies’ pressures and ordered businesses to require masks.
Business’s solution thus became government-issued mask mandates. If the government mandates masks everywhere, then businesses don’t need to fear losing customers to their competitors. They can transfer the burden of enforcement onto publicly funded police. And they can minimize disruptions from belligerent customers and “overly empowered” workers.
There is huge irony in the big retailers’ change of position. Their stores have been the biggest winners from the reckless reopening of states with growing COVID-19 infection rates. Like President Trump and the Republican governors, they were happy to maximize their revenues regardless of the cost to their workers, customers, or surrounding communities.
But workers and customers have begun to take matters into their own hands. The resulting hostility at stores, intensified by the patchwork of local government mandates, has threatened to turn profits into losses. When businesses could not stop their workers from “feeling overly empowered” and confronting mask-less customers, government mandates on masks and social distancing became the less expensive alternative. Corporations were certainly not moved by a human concern about soaring COVID-19 deaths: neither of the business letters cited above even mention the deaths.
Another irony is that mask mandates have for months enjoyed strong public support, particularly at indoor locations like retailers. But the will of the people was of little consequence until workers and consumers began to threaten business profits directly. Corporate leaders responded as they always do, demanding government action that would safeguard their profits and absorb the costs of the policy. All of a sudden, the public will was reflected in policy, and political analysts celebrated the triumph of democracy.
The lesson for the coming months is clear: to defeat COVID-19 we must force the 1 percent to pay the costs of the status quo. Once they feel the pain, they’ll make the politicians do what’s necessary to fight it.