Business leaders, workers welcome mask rule

The announcement that the province will be requiring all staff and customers to wear masks in indoor public and retail spaces was welcome news for one local business owner.

Trent Derrick is the owner of Rocky Mountain Chocolate. Derrick said he and his staff have frequently gotten pushback or abuse from customers not happy with the store's COVID-19 safety plan.

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"We've had people yell at our staff. We've had people yell at us," Derrick said. "For awhile, it was happening once or twice a day. It has slowed down to once or twice a week, now."

While the store didn't require customers to wear masks previously, they had strict limits on how many customers were allowed inside and social distancing requirements, he said. Those rules were the most frequent cause of conflicts, he added.

While Derrick said he and his staff have never felt physically threatened or unsafe because of one of those encounters, several of his staff were left feeling upset and emotionally shaken by the incidents. The incidents prompted Derrick to offer his staff training on how to deal with hostile customers, and stressful situations.

The provincial order will hopefully reduce conflicts with customers, he said.

"I think it's good news. It brings consistency from business to business," Derrick said. "As small businesses, and all businesses, we're just trying to follow the rules. We're all under the same stress. Just be kind."

Prince George Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Corrigall also welcomed Henry's order making masks mandatory.

"This is exactly what we've been waiting for, to make it mandatory, to enforce that message and ensure that people know that and this is a positive step forward in our fight against COVID-19," he said.

Corrigall said the measure will help contain the spread of the virus and also protects merchants from having "one of those challenging conversations, where somebody may not want to wear a mask."

"It is now mandated, it is now required. There are face shields if you can't wear a mask – if you've got a medical exemption, then a face shield covers that portion, so these are all positive steps forward."

He said the step gives store managers and staff the authority to refuse service to someone who is being challenging on the matter.

Corrigall urged retailers to comply with the order rather than serve someone who is not wearing a mask or face shield.

"In the long run, it's to their benefit," he said. "The fast that this (the pandemic) gets addressed, the faster things return to normal, the faster people can be entering their stores in large numbers."

The order also might make those who are at higher risk feel more comfortable to go out and do their shopping in person again, he added.

Henry asked – but did not order – people to refrain from non-essential travel.

Corrigall said he doubt that will have much of an effect on people from surrounding communities coming into Prince George to shop.

He said they might have to come into Prince George to purchase essential items they can't get at home.

"If there's a mask mandate in place, people are respectful of the mask mandate, they're washing their hands, they're being respectful of others, there shouldn't be a problem with somebody from Vanderhoof or Fort St. James or McBride coming to Prince George to do their shopping," he said. "You can't stop people from getting their necessities or celebrating their holidays."

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518 president Kim Novak thanked Henry for keeping frontline grocery and retail workers safe. The union represents thousands of grocery store and retail workers in Prince George and across B.C.

Novak urged British Columbians to follow the rules without compliant.

"This much needed public safety measure, which Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth will roll out in the coming week, will go a long way towards keeping frontline grocery and retail workers safe," Novak said in an emailed statement. "These workers are doing an incredible service for their communities, keeping everyone supplied during a pandemic, and they deserve strong health and safety protections and recognition for the work they are doing."

A survey of 2,000 B.C. retail workers released by the union earlier this week, showed 61 per cent of workers polled felt unsafe at work during the pandemic. More than 90 per cent said they felt unsafe from COVID-19 at least some of the time.

More than 82 per cent said they interacted with unmasked customers daily, and 95 per cent said it happens at least once a week.

“We cannot be responsible to enforce (mask-wearing) in the store and be subject to harassment and abuse by customers," one survey respondent said.

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