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Left To Enforce Local Mandates, Front-Line Retail Workers Face Threats

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United States set a new record yesterday for the most new coronavirus cases reported in a single day - more than 68,000. The previous high mark was set just the day before. The pandemic is stressing medical resources in several states like California, Arizona, Texas and Florida that have seen dramatic surges in recent days. The country's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, this week referred to this moment as a perfect storm of viral contagion, all of which has intensified the debate about what the country - each of us, really - can do to slow down the spread of the virus, like wearing a face mask.

Today President Trump was seen wearing a mask in public during a visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. But the president has sent mixed messages about this, refusing for months to wear a mask, as health experts recommend.

So to begin tonight, we want to focus on a group of people who've been on the frontlines of this battle. We're talking about retail workers. They are often the primary enforcers of local mandates - people like Dionna Richardson, who works at a grocery store in Los Angeles.

DIONNA RICHARDSON: It is challenging. I have been met with people who have threatened me. I have had to call the police. In those threats, one person has threatened to burn me. We also have had another employee that got spit on, you know? So it's been a lot.

MARTIN: We've called Rachel Michelin to talk more about this. She is the president and CEO of the California Retailers Association.

Rachel Michelin, thank you so much for joining us.

RACHEL MICHELIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you just heard Dionna Richardson describe what it's been like for her. Have you heard similar stories from other retail workers?

MICHELIN: Unfortunately, I have. And listening to her story and the stories of our retail workers not just in California but across the country, it's heartbreaking. And it's heartbreaking because it doesn't need to happen. We've worked very hard. We're trying, from a retail industry perspective, to keep retail open. It's a great sales tax revenue for local governments, and folks need to go to the grocery stores and such.

And all we're asking is that folks come in, put on their face coverings and be respectful. I understand that some folks think it's a political issue, but we all want to see an end to the pandemic. And a simple thing of being respectful in a store and wearing your face covering can go a long way to us all getting out of this pandemic together.

MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the things that just has to escalate the anxiety around this is that if a worker confronts a person who refuses to wear a mask, that person - you know, we've seen instances of people responding angrily, including yelling. You heard about a person spitting, which is an escalation of the danger of spewing contagion. Do you have some advice for people when they're confronting people who escalate a situation in that way?

MICHELIN: You know, so here's the challenge - is that retail employees - they're not law enforcement. They're not trained to do this. And so we're really going to implement these mandatory face covering ordinances across the country. We're asking - and I've asked our governor to work with us. Work with the retail industry. Call me. Let's figure out a way that we can implement this mandate because we want to be a partner in it. But we need to protect our retail employees.

MARTIN: Well, but I have to ask, does the mixed messaging from political leaders affect this, in your view? I mean...

MICHELIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Are people citing the fact that the president is refusing to wear a mask, at least in public? He says he's worn them privately in some situations, but he doesn't want to be photographed wearing a mask. Does the mixed messaging, you think, influence people's behavior here?

MICHELIN: Absolutely. And I think when this whole thing started way back when in March, if, at that point, everyone said, put on a face mask, I think that it wouldn't be where we are today. I think that the information keeps coming out. It contradicts.

What would be great is if we see both the Republicans and the Democrats stand together and say - including Trump - wear your face mask. I mean, if you want to see the economy open and the economy fully open and thrive, put on a face mask.

MARTIN: That was Rachel Michelin. She's the president and CEO of the California Retailers Association.

Rachel Michelin, thanks so much for talking to us.

MICHELIN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.