Waterstones employees will not be expected to intervene or attempt to police mask wearing in stores from 19th July, the retailer has confirmed, after announcing it would “encourage” customers to don face coverings and observe social distancing after restrictions are lifted across England.
On 13th July, Waterstones tweeted it had made the decision because of the “enclosed browsing environment” in stores.
However, the chain's stance was met with some strong reactions on Twitter. Many praised the store for its measured policy, but some, including former actor and political activist Laurence Fox and Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley Brewer, criticised the move. Brewer said: "I make a point of buying books at my local Waterstones rather than ordering on Amazon because I want bookstores to thrive, but if I go into your store and a member of staff asks me to wear a mask, you will lose my business forever.”
A spokesperson for Waterstones told The Bookseller: “From Monday 19th July, the English government will remove the mandatory wearing of face coverings in public and the legislative requirement to adhere to one-metre social distancing. Whilst we will not enforce mask wearing in our English shops, we respectfully encourage our booksellers and our customers to follow the spirit of government guidance, continuing to observe the same safety measures of wearing face masks in crowded and enclosed spaces, and maintaining the social distancing that have helped to create a safe shopping environment. We also ask our staff to continue employing the three primary control measures (face masks, appropriate social distancing and cleanliness and hand hygiene) that have kept both our staff and our customers secure during the ongoing pandemic.”
Waterstones staff seemed positive about the retailer’s decision. One employee told The Bookseller: “We are glad to see a more sensible approach taken internally and that customers will be encouraged to continue exhibiting the correct behaviours. This will be done through the use of signage with much of our current point-of-sale suite remaining in place for the time being. However there is no expectation that staff intervene or attempt to police this policy themselves, indeed, we are actively discouraged from putting ourselves in a situation that may lead to confrontation.
“Staff are encouraged to put their own safety first, continue to distance from customers and one another, wear a mask where possible and continue with hygiene best practice. With a lack of clear government policy on the issue, staff have no legal backing to enforce any behaviours from our customers and as such mask wearing and distancing will be largely self-policing. Many staff would like to see a stiffening of the wording being used by the government and a U-turn on the current path, with masks and distancing in crowded spaces and public transport remaining a requirement.”
They said that the shift in rhetoric from the government had already seen an increase in the number of people opting not to wear a mask as well as visitors pushing back against the current rules and abusing and challenging staff. “Sadly we expect this trend to continue after the 19th," they said.
“Some branches have enjoyed a busy past few days. With many customers commenting that they too are concerned about the shift in policy and are looking to get in to our stores and stock up on reading material before going into a self-imposed period of isolation and that they will look to avoid busy/crowded places such as shops and shopping centres until the effects of the changing policy become more apparent.”
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