Home Opinion GUEST EDITORIAL: Mask mandate drafts cashiers, clerks as Cooper’s cops

GUEST EDITORIAL: Mask mandate drafts cashiers, clerks as Cooper’s cops

North Carolina’s newest law enforcers won’t be sworn to protect and serve. They’ll be unarmed, and instead of badges, their uniforms will feature name tags from supermarkets, fast-food restaurants and big-box stores. 

Gov. Roy Cooper effectively deputized thousands of Tar Heels this week when he announced a new executive order requiring people to wear face coverings in public places to halt the spread of COVID-19. Masks are mandatory, but violators won’t be penalized. Instead, businesses are expected to enforce the rule under threat of state punishment. 

“Citations under this section shall be written only to businesses or organizations that fail to enforce the requirement to wear face coverings,” Executive Order 147 states in Section F1. 

Section F2 drives the point home: “Law enforcement personnel are not authorized to criminally enforce the face covering requirements of this executive order against individual workers, customers or patrons.” 

The only backup police can provide is enforcing the state trespassing law against customers who refuse to wear masks and remain on the premises after being told to leave. 

Cooper was wise to avoid making it a crime to go maskless, but conscripting cashiers, servers and sales associates to do the state’s bidding is a sweeping new form of overreach. The governor’s Republican opponents are rightly crying foul. 

“Republican leaders across North Carolina encourage people to take personal responsibility and wear face masks,” N.C. GOP press secretary Tim Wigginton said. “Rather than enforce the order himself, Cooper forces small business owners to enforce it instead.” 

The order will require employees on the front lines of food service and retail sales — many of whom are among the state’s lowest-paid workers — to confront customers who arrive without face coverings. Shoppers turned away because they refuse to wear a mask or simply forgot to bring one may become belligerent. 


A May 16 video of one such encounter between a Costco worker and customer in Colorado went viral. Despite remaining calm and professional, the employee is berated and subjected to vulgar language. Costco adopted a store policy requiring shoppers to wear masks, and as a warehouse club, its customers agree to follow the rules when they sign up for membership cards. A government mandate applied to all North Carolina consumer businesses could cause more tension.

“Required face coverings not only cause zero harm to our economy, they in fact help our economy by making it safer to shop, do business and keep our small businesses running,” Cooper said during Wednesday’s press conference. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has hobbled North Carolina businesses. Those that weren’t forced to shut down during the statewide stay-at-home order have implemented social distancing requirements, increased cleaning and sanitization and borne the cost of providing workers with personal protective equipment. Now they’re being tasked with face mask enforcement, which will surely add operational hassles and labor costs. 

Business owners, managers and employees should voice their concerns to the Cooper administration and their representatives and senators in the N.C. General Assembly. Likewise, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and trade groups including the N.C. Retail Merchants Association must advocate for their members and ask Cooper to modify his order. 

More than a dozen other states require residents to wear face coverings as the U.S. continues to chart coronavirus outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths. North Carolina’s order is far less strict than the nation’s most authoritarian examples. 

In Hawaii, mask scofflaws face a $5,000 fine or up to a year in prison. In Washington state, violators can be convicted of a misdemeanor and could spend up to 90 days in jail. 

Face masks are effective in halting the spread of COVID-19. Believe it or not, the ones worn by choice work just as well as those fastened by government coercion. We encourage all North Carolinians to wear face coverings in order to avoid catching or spreading coronavirus germs. People can make responsible choices for themselves without governors or mayors butting in. 

Cooper deserves credit for taking criminal penalties off the table, but he’s wrong to order clerks and salespeople to do the state’s dirty work. He’s conferred responsibility without authority on thousands of people and made them the unwitting face of a controversial new policy.

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