Are area shoppers complying with mask orders? We visited 100 stores to find out

The majority of Miami Valley residents surveyed and observed in stores by the Dayton Daily News last week support and are complying with a statewide order requiring masks in retails stories, though views and behaviors vary by geography.

Dayton Daily News reporters visited 102 retail stores in Montgomery, Greene, Miami and Warren counties last week and spent about five minutes in each one noting mask usage.

Of the 1,911 customers our reporters saw, only 64 (3.3%) weren’t wearing masks. Of the 678 employees, only 2 (.3%) were unmasked.

“That’s a pretty good compliance rate if you ask me,” said Chris Kershner, president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

The new rules present a learning curve for local businesses, Kershner said, but their top priority is the safety of their customers and employees. Plus they want to stay open through the holiday shopping season.

“If this is what we have to do to keep our economy open and avoid a shutdown, it’s better than the alternative,” he said.

More common than outright mask scofflaws were customers and employees improperly wearing masks. Our reporters noted more than 100 people — including a couple dozen store employees — wearing their masks under their nose or just covering their chin.

Local and national health experts say studies have repeatedly shown that widespread masking is effective at reducing COVID-19 spread if the masks are worn properly, covering both the nose and mouth.

“Wearing a mask, combined with keeping your distance from others and frequent handwashing, is the best way to protect yourself and others from the spread of COVID-19,” said Dan Suffoletto, spokesman for Public Health–Dayton & Montgomery County. “By combining all three of these methods together, you provide yourself with a layered defense from contracting COVID-19.”

Regional differences

The stores with the most customers not wearing masks were mostly in Miami and Warren counties. The only two stores where employees didn’t have a mask were in Warren County.

Of the more than 200 people who responded to a Dayton Daily News reader survey, 18% said they don’t wear masks in public and 31 percent said they oppose the statewide mask order. Respondents from Miami and Warren counties were more likely to oppose the mask order and said they forego masks in public.

The location with the most people not wearing masks was the Walmart in Lebanon, where 7 of 75 customers and one of the 15 employees our reporter saw were bare-faced. One of the unmasked customers was in a wheelchair and being helped by someone wearing a mask. The mask order includes a medical exemption.

At the Kroger in Springboro two hours later, a customer entered the store without a mask and accepted one when offered. A woman without a mask shopped with an elderly woman wearing her mask around her neck.

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

The five customers observed at the grocery store without masks on included Warren County Common Pleas Court Judge Timothy Tepe, whose mask dangled from his ear. He declined to comment on his reason for not wearing it.

Dustin Ratliff, sanitation supervisor at the Warren County Health District, said he was interested in the newspaper’s findings and how they can target additional messaging about the benefits of masks.

“Our messaging has been the same for months and months now: For everyone to wear masks, stay home when you’re sick, limit gatherings,” he said.

Walmart this year started posting “health ambassadors” near the entrances to their stores to remind people of mask requirements, according to company officials.

“During this challenging time, we’re working to balance health and safety concerns while still meeting the needs and expectations of our customers and associates,” said Walmart spokesman Casey Staheli in a statement to the Dayton Daily News.

“We’ve seen a positive response to the measures we’ve taken and are pleased that the vast majority of the 150 million customers who visit us each week are wearing masks. If a customer doesn’t want to wear a face covering, our health ambassadors notify a member of management, who will talk to the customer and try to find a solution.”

Kroger did not respond to a message requesting comment.

Shoppers weigh in

The majority of shoppers interviewed by the Dayton Daily News said they have no problem wearing a mask.

“I love it,” said Tonya Towns in a Gordon Food Service parking lot in Trotwood, who had multiple masks on her. She said she is concerned that if things get worse, there won’t be a hospital bed for her if she suffers an accident like a car crash. “We need to be unified for a while,” she said.

Shopping at the Huber Heights Target, Jaime Wellman said: “I wear a mask no matter what because I have parents who are 75 and 76. My kids do, too. If it’s going to stop the spread, I’ll do it.”

Credit: India Duke

Credit: India Duke

But even as they wore masks at Lowe’s, Brittany Hall and Bria Smith of Dayton expressed doubt that they did much good — especially since many people don’t wear them right.

“I don’t think the masks help as much,” Hall said.

Rebekkah Brandon of Brookville and her brother-in-law Jamie Dillon of Dayton didn’t wear masks at the Walmart in Englewood. Both said they were unable to wear them. Dillon said he has asthma and called the mask mandate ridiculous.

“I don’t think we should have to if we don’t want to,” he said. “It should be our choice as the Constitution puts it.”

As she walked out of JC Penny’s at the Mall at Fairfield Commons in a mask adorned with dogs in Santa hats, Robine Baker of Dayton said she knows that some people are opposed to them.

“(Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine) is trying to keep everybody safe. But people don’t want to stay safe, they just want to do whatever they want to do and not follow the rules,” she said. “If you follow the rules…they’ll get the vaccine out and everybody can get back to normal.”

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Credit: Josh Sweigart

Mask complaints down

Local health officials refer new complaints about noncompliance with the order issued this month requiring customers and patrons to wear masks to the Ohio Department of Health for follow-up by the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation.

Complaints to Public Health Dayton-Montgomery County about the original mask order passed in July have decreased from 658 in July to 323 in October and 175 through mid-November.

The Montgomery County retail business with the most complaints since July is Meijer in Huber Heights, which had eight complaints of employees and customers not wearing masks, most from July and August. A Dayton Daily News reporter visited the store last week and didn’t see a single person without a mask.

The health department responds to complaints with either a visit to the store or email to the corporate office of larger businesses. In several cases the company provided documentation exempting certain employees from wearing masks for medical reasons, according to records obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

A couple dozen of the complaints received in Montgomery County this month have been about gas stations. After a number of complaints about Speedway locations throughout the county, public health officials received a response from the company.

“If a customer does not wear a face covering in our store when it is required by state or local order, we ensure signage is posted on the front door that states face coverings are required and politely inform the customer that the law requires them to wear a face cover,” says the response, according to county records.

“We also now have masks available for 99 cents for them to purchase and wear. We expect our customers to comply with local laws and orders when entering our stores.”

In addition to the health and safety of their customers and employees, businesses have an economic motive for getting people to wear masks — especially as the holiday shopping season unfolds.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “an economic analysis using U.S. data found that ... increasing universal masking by 15% could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses of up to $1 trillion or about 5% of gross domestic product.”

How we did this story

The Dayton Daily News sent 10 reporters to more than 100 retail stores in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Clark counties to assess local compliance with a recent order requiring masks be work in retail businesses. Reporters involved in this project were Eileen McClory, Cornelius Frolik, Larry Budd, Nick Blizzard, Eric Schwartzberg, Jordan Laird, Parker Perry, Sarah Franks, India Duke and Josh Sweigart.

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