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A mask-free supermarket has made news – but it’s publicity you can live without

By February 14, 2021February 15th, 2021No Comments

(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)

Have you seen the video yet? It’s pretty shocking. No, it’s not the Weeknd’s Super Bowl performance. It’s even worse.

The 15-second video, from an NBC news reporter, shows shoppers and workers inside an independent Florida supermarket going about their business … maskless. The video was taken in early February 2021 right as the state continued to record thousands of new Covid cases and scores of deaths from the virus every day.

Still, the shoppers and employees – many of whom appear elderly, which would make them a high-risk group – are defiant, with the New York Post reporting that “one maskless female employee is seen laughing at a customer who also eschewed donning a mask, while two workers and another patron were all without personal protective equipment at another checkout aisle.”

Is this allowed? Well, yes and no.

There is a mask mandate in the county where the supermarket is located. But it appears to be enforced leniently. And Alfie Oakes, the owner of the store and a fierce opponent of mask-wearing, has hung a sign stating that customers are “exempt” from the mask mandate “if they have a medical condition” and that “workers ‘will assume’ customers without masks have a medical condition making them exempt from the mandate.”

The video is upsetting for a few reasons. Of course, the obvious is that so many older customers and employees are exposing themselves to the virus – and we all know it’s likely that most do not have any “medical conditions” that would preclude them from wearing a mask. It’s annoying that a small business owner is so blatantly flouting the rules. More upsetting is that – well, darn it – remember the good old days when we didn’t have to wear masks everywhere? Argh.

So is Oakes wrong? Yes, he is very wrong. But not for legal reasons. What he’s doing is bad for his business.

That’s because being on the wrong side of a topical issue is never good for a small business. If you’re that bakery that refuses to sell a wedding cake to an LGBT couple or a restaurant that denies entry to a politician opposed by the owner or a fitness center that adamantly stays open during a shutdown and in the face of government fines you’re ultimately going to lose that battle. Sure, you’ll have some supporters. But the negative response on social media and its resulting undesirable PR, combined with the fines, the legal problems and most importantly the ire you’ll probably raise among the rest of your community will ultimately drive away most others.

Alfie Oakes has his principles and that’s his right. But his principles clearly go well beyond what’s good for his community.

He could easily continue to operate his business while still requiring a mask. It’s really not that big a deal. He could hang a sign that says something like “this mask rule is crazy and I oppose it but still … please put one on.”

But by not doing so, he’s not only putting his employees and customers at risk, he’s putting his company’s long-term prospects at risk. He’s losing many customers right now who fear entering his store or who are disgusted by his behavior and it’s likely many of them won’t come back once they get a taste of the competition. More importantly, he’s losing his credibility and respect with many in the community. And that’s something no business owner should be without.

So go ahead, be political in your personal life. But don’t do what Oakes is doing. Keep your business out of politics. Otherwise you’ll risk putting your business – and all the people who rely on it for their livelihoods – in jeopardy.

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