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CDC discourages front-line workers from arguing with anti-maskers in new guidance

The CDC says workers should go to a "safe area" when confronted by unruly or violent customers who refuse to cover their faces.
Portrait of female butcher working at butcher's shop - with face mask
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/ Source: TODAY

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance this week on limiting workplace violence related to COVID-19 policies. In the updated recommendations, the CDC is discouraging workers in retail, restaurants and other businesses from arguing with customers who refuse to wear masks.

"Don't argue with a customer if they make threats or become violent," the website, updated on Aug. 24, states alongside a graphic of a masked employee and an unmasked customer. "If needed, go to a safe area (ideally, a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm)."

The guidance continues, "Don't attempt to force anyone who appears upset or violent to follow COVID-19 prevention policies or other policies or practices related to COVID-19 (e.g., limits on number of household or food products)."

The CDC also advised employers to assign workers to pair up in order to enforce COVID-19 prevention policies. The federal agency also said companies should educate their employees on the signs of possible workplace violence, such as "speaking loudly or swearing" and "clenched fists, heavy breathing, fixed stare and pacing."

The CDC did not immediately respond for TODAY's request for comment about the reasoning behind the new guidance.

Some other ways to de-escalate conflicts over masks include:

  • Educating yourself on local mask policies.
  • Genuinely listening to the anti-mask individual's point of view, and not pushing back right away.
  • Deflecting responsibility to the store or state policy.
  • Using "I" statements, not "you."
  • Seeking help from a manager or, if necessary, law enforcement officials.

The pandemic has created an increasingly challenging work environment for those who work in service or retail industries — especially grocery stores or places where essential goods are sold. There have been frequent reports and viral videos showing people in various public settings becoming hostile when asked to put on a face covering.

In mid-July, a McDonald's worker was assaulted by a customer after she asked the individual to wear a mask in the drive-thru. In late May, a Costco employee earned praise online for calmly responding to a customer berating him over the store's mask policy.

Since March, numerous stores — from Walmart to Whole Foods — have instituted policies requiring masks and social distancing on their premises. Some state and local guidelines also require customers to wear masks in public places, not just private businesses.

Recent research on mask use shows it's an effective method of helping to reduce the spread of coronavirus. In mid-July, the director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, said that if everyone in America wore a mask, washed their hands frequently and practiced social distancing, the spread of the virus would be under control in one to two months.

“Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting,” Redfield said in a statement at the time. “All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families and their communities.”

A study published in June, the first of its kind to review comprehensive data about masks and COVID-19, found that without a mask, social distancing or any other preventive measures, the risk of transmitting the coronavirus is 17.4%. When a mask or respirator is added, that number drops to 3.1%.