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caption: Customers outside the Home Depot in Tukwila on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
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Customers outside the Home Depot in Tukwila on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ashley Hiruko

Home Depot isn't following Washington state's mask mandate. Says it's risky for staff

Update: Home Depot changed its mask policy two days after this story was published.

The customer was one of the cashier's first of the day at the Home Depot in Tukwila last Wednesday, July 8. The man wasn't wearing a mask.

This was the day after businesses in Washington state started being required to enforce mask wearing of customers.

The Home Depot cashier, who asked that KUOW not name him for fear of professional repercussions, said he asked the customer if he’d like a mask. The customer declined the cashier's offer, saying he had one in his pocket.

After a back-and-forth between the cashier and the customer, the cashier figured he’d done the right thing, considering the new law, which took effect the day before, on July 7.

Home Depot, however, followed up by telling the cashier by email that only staff would be required to wear masks -- despite the state mandate. Home Depot confirmed to KUOW this is the policy, saying by email it could be dangerous to police customers on mask use. At other stores elsewhere in the U.S., customers have threatened employees who ask them to wear a mask.

The mask mandate is a response to a recent dramatic uptick in coronavirus cases in the state. The hope is to increase mask use -- and slow the pandemic -- by requiring businesses to withhold service to non-mask wearers.

READ: Home Depot reverses mask policy; will now have enforcement ‘captains’ in stores

"This is not an optional plan for businesses," Gov. Jay Inslee said during a July 2 press conference on the new rule. "This is a legal requirement. This is not merely a suggestion. If you go to a business and you're not complying with this, the business cannot legally serve you. And that's not an option for them, it's simply required via our law."

Those who have pushed back on the mask requirement have done so politically. President Trump famously refused to wear a mask.

The Home Depot cashier was surprised to learn that his company's stance didn’t align with the law. He was told that at Home Depot they were “supposed to help all customers” -- even those without masks, and that employees were not “the mask police,” he said.

KUOW reviewed the email that Home Depot management sent him saying this.

The cashier emailed Home Depot leadership, concerned with what he learned that day.

“Please advise in writing what is the policy at this point, so I can make an informed decision,” the cashier wrote. “For my safety, I will be unable to work (my) shifts until the policy is clear.”

By that afternoon, he had further clarity.

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“I understand your concern and not feeling comfortable,” an email from Cassandra Harnett, who works in Home Depot human relations. “We, as a company, are putting out the signs to mandate masks, but are only able to enforce with our associates. We are not to turn customers away or refuse service. We can offer them a mask if we see a customer without a mask, but again, we are not to address the mandate any further.”

The Home Depot cashier said he is frustrated because he has known people who have died from Covid-19. "They don't care about the people," he said of Home Depot.

The cashier also felt uncomfortable because he is undergoing immunotherapy. He said other employees at the location where he works are older, and many come from immigrant families and may feel pressured to work.

"People are sick, especially in the Black community, we're taking a beating," he said. "So I just couldn't believe it."

After initial reluctance to embrace face masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 3 urged all Americans to wear masks when they leave their homes. Face masks could help reduce the transmission of coronavirus, which the World Health Organization said on July 9 could potentially be spread through the air.

"Short-range aerosol transmission, particularly in specific indoor locations, such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons cannot be ruled out," a World Health scientific brief on coronavirus transmission states.

Inslee instructed businesses to turn people without masks away. And businesses that didn't would face "a fair and effective enforcement process," said Mike Faulk, spokesperson with the Governor's Office.

Complaints of this nature are handled by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, which contacts business management to ensure they understand the law and are following it. If a business is still not complying, an investigation would be launched.

The investigation process can take weeks, said Tim Church, spokesperson with Labor and Industries.

On July 9, the day after the cashier learned of Home Depot's stance, roughly one out of every 10 people inside the Home Depot in Tukwila were without masks — despite signs on the wall warning against the practice, or the announcement that promoted mask use blaring throughout the store. Those not wearing masks were older men, most of them white.

A man who appeared to be middle-aged did not wear a mask at the return counter as he was helped by an employee. Behind him, masked customers stood the recommended six feet apart in line.

Another customer without a mask, a man who appeared to be in his 60s, stood by as an employee loaded wood onto his platform dolly.

One man casually walked through the entire store without a mask for at least 30 minutes. He passed multiple employees as he browsed the kitchen tile and traveled down aisles with hanging plants and succulents for sale.

At businesses in other states, some customers have reacted aggressively, when confronted by employees for not wearing a mask. One man at a Kansas barbecue restaurant flashed a gun at an employee after he was asked to wear a mask inside last week.

Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith told KUOW by email that policing customers on their mask usage could be hazardous to employees.

"Where they’re required by local mandate, we’re asking customers to wear masks in our stores through signage and announcements over our PA system," Smith said. "We have not required stores to police local mandates, because it can be dangerous to put our associates in that position."

In a phone call, Smith said associates frequently offer customers a mask, when they arrive without one. But she again reaffirmed that they don't police customers.

She said employees who are uncomfortable working with unmasked customers should "speak with a manager and review the benefits and time off available to them."

The Home Depot cashier who works in Tukwila has been at home since he learned of Home Depot's approach. He said he was told that management would call him in about a week, and see how he feels about working at that point.

He said he is frustrated because businesses like Dick's Drive-In and Safeway have security to enforce the mask measures, but Home Depot does not.

"It's dangerous, irresponsible, not to mention illegal to expose employees to this type of work environment," the cashier said. "I guess for (Home Depot) it's dollars over people."

Gov. Inslee does exempt people with applicable medical conditions from having to oblige to the mask-wearing rules. However, some people choose to go mask free for political reasons, despite scientific evidence that mask use can prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza made a political statement when he publicly decried Gov. Jay Inslee after the governor announced that all Washingtonians had to wear masks.

"In case you guys didn't hear, Gov. Inslee in his infinite wisdom has decided after over 100 and some odd days that we should all wear face masks, inside and out," Sheriff Snaza said on June 23 to a crowd of people outdoors. "Here's what I say -- don't be a sheep."

Loren Culp, a Republican candidate for governor, announced in videos posted to social media that he opposed the statewide-mask requirement. He suggested the new law was unconstitutional.

"I will not comply. I am a free American," Culp said.