Shop owners faced with customers who are not complying with mandatory face coverings have received clear advice from Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association chief executive Vincent Jennings, who says: "Don't engage, it is not worth it."
Mr Jennings says he knows of a “serious incident” at a motorway service station which led to a 15-minute confrontation between staff at the premises and a man who declined to wear a mask.
Mr Jennings insisted there are “no circumstances” in which a shop owner should tell a customer to wear a face covering. The law mandating the use of face coverings while in shops, which was brought in on Monday of last week amid the Covid-19 pandemic, does not require shop owners to issue such instructions.
Retailers are merely requested to tell customers about the legislation. Mr Jennings advised that when people enter shops without wearing a mask, the best way to get the customer out quickly is simply to serve them promptly.
Some shop owners had expressed fear they may be sued for defamation, or under disabilities legislation, if they refuse service to people who have legitimate reasons not to wear a face covering, Mr Jennings added.
The legislation states that people are exempt from wearing a mask if they have “any physical or mental illness, impairment or disability”. Another exempted category are those who cannot wear a mask “without severe distress”.
Mr Jennings claimed the phrase "without severe distress" was "cut and paste" from the British legislation on this issue. He has sought urgent clarification from the Department of Health as to what "severe distress" is, and who is supposed to determine what it means.
Mr Jennings stressed, however, that compliance with mask-wearing in shops is at more than 90 per cent. Some young people, under 30, were less likely to wear masks, in his experience.
Peter Gaughan, who owns the Spar in Ballina, Co Mayo, said many retailers are weary, having worked 20 weeks "to keep the country open and people fed". Any expectation that they would be tasked with confronting people who do not wear face coverings would be "a bridge too far", he said.
Mr Gaughan said most people who enter his shop wear face coverings, but there are others who have no interest in complying. He will not confront them: “It’s not my job, pure and simple.”
John Paul Lonergan, who runs the Spar in Fairview, Dublin, said shop owners are fearful of "trial by social media" if they insist on people wearing masks and also if they do not insist.
He has had customers who complain about having to wear masks, and also some who complain when they spot fellow customers not wearing them.
“The blame game is sneaking into this a bit unfortunately. That can’t be a good thing in the long run,” he said.
Other retailers, though, say they are satisfied with compliance. Derek Moran of Eurospar in Drogheda said compliance is in the "high 90s", meaning less than 10 per cent of customers are not wearing masks. "It is pretty good. Anybody with common sense knows we are in a perilous situation."
He says he has, on occasion, asked young people to take off their masks so he could assess whether or not they were old enough to buy alcohol, cigarettes or lottery cards, and all of them complied with his request.
Sarah Kelly, who runs The Village Butcher in Ranelagh, Dublin, placed a sign on her premises early on in the coronavirus lockdown, saying: "We will no longer serve rude or impatient customers."
However, she stressed she has no such complaints to make about mask compliance. “The uptake has been brilliant. Some 99 per cent of people are wearing them. On Saturday, the whole day when we were very busy, two people did not have them, and one apologised and we served the other.”
Tesco, Musgrave (SuperValu and Centra), Lidl and Aldi all expressed satisfaction with levels of compliance, when asked by The Irish Times.