A Lowe’s shopper who saw mask-less people swarming her local store has launched a petition with 115,000 signatures begging the company to take action — and it shows a growing problem for retailers

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A woman walks into a Lowe’s in 2019. In July, a Lowe’s shopper wrote up a petition calling on the home improvement giant to enforce its mask policy, after she was cursed out by an anti-mask customer. Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • When Tanja Softic visited a Lowe’s in Richmond, Virginia, on July 25, she said she saw many customers flouting the retailer’s mandatory mask policy.
  • One anti-mask shopper violated her personal space and cursed at her when she asked him to don a mask, she told Business Insider.
  • Softic told Business Insider that she spoke with a manager about the situation, but was told that Lowe’s employees were instructed to avoid confronting anti-mask shoppers.
  • After the incident, Softic wrote up a Change.org petition calling on the retailer to enforce its coronavirus policy.
  • Lowe’s did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Tanja Softic was browsing the aisles in her local Lowe’s store on July 25 when a stranger bolted towards her.

By that point, Softic was already on edge at the home improvement chain’s Richmond, Virginia, location.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has put in place a mandatory mask policy for indoor public spaces. But that Saturday afternoon, the people at Lowe’s might as well have been shopping in pre-pandemic times. Softic said she encountered at least 10 shoppers flouting the store’s mandatory mask rules in the store.

Even the employees seemed to not be taking the order seriously, with some wearing masks that failed to cover their noses. Softic said she encountered one worker, fresh off his lunch break, wandering around the store sans mask.

Then a man without a mask on encroached on her personal space. He rushed down the aisle towards Softic, then hovered about a foot away. Softic said she asked the man to step away and wear a mask. When he began cursing at her, she went and found a manager. The manager politely told her that employees were powerless to confront anti-mask shoppers due to safety concerns, even citing a message circulated by Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison. Business Insider obtained a copy of Ellison’s letter clarifying the company’s mask policy.

“Because we are not a law enforcement agency, we cannot force a customer to wear a mask if they refuse,” Ellison wrote. “However, we will provide each store with an allotment of paper masks that we will give to any customer who enters the store not wearing a face covering. If the customer refuses to put on the mask when offered, simply maintain your social distancing, thank them, and continue to assist other customers.”

Upset by the experience, Softic filed a petition with Change.org over the incident, calling on Lowe’s to enforce its mandatory mask policy. So far, her petition has garnered over 115,000 signatures. The encounter in the Richmond Lowe’s store is indicative of the current clash over masks in retail spaces. A minority of hardline anti-mask consumers stand ready for confrontation, lashing out at employees and fellow customers who challenge their choices. Retail employees find themselves consigned to the position of public health policy enforcers.

But Softic’s petition also reflects the concerns of the vast majority of consumers in the United States who support mask-wearing in public indoor spaces. Like Softic, they are tired of the loud, angry, and sometimes violent reaction against masks by a comparatively small group of shoppers. And, with President Donald Trump and the federal government under fire for bungling the response to the coronavirus pandemic, they are looking toward national retailers like Lowe’s for leadership.

‘There’s a deference’

As an artist who frequently stocks up on hardware supplies, Softic said she’s frequented the Lowe’s in downtown Richmond. She said she’s noticed that the store is an outlier when it comes to permitting maskless customers. According to her, neighbouring CVS and Whole Foods stores seem to have no problem ensuring that all shoppers are donning masks.

“Somehow other stores are able to say no masks, no service, but Lowe’s is not,” she said. “I think it’s the corporate culture. It is not Richmond. It’s not Virginia. It’s Lowe’s.”

Since the incident, Softic has begun shopping at local hardware locations. She said that she believes Lowe’s is attempting to avoid offending anti-mask shoppers.

“There’s a deference to people who are anti-maskers,” she said. “So they just don’t want to get embroiled in controversy or something.”

Lowe's coronavirus mask
A mask-wearing shopper loads his car in a Lowe’s parking lot. Mark Lennihan/AP Images

A current Lowe’s employee told Business Insider that if a customer refuses to don a mask or a facial covering, “we are supposed to say thank you and let them continue.”

But this lack of enforcement has proved alienating to those consumers who support mask-wearing in public. Currently, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks in public.

In one case, a shopper has taken Lowe’s to court over the company’s lack of mask policy enforcement. John Birke filed a $US20 million suit against the company after a fellow Lowe’s customer spat in his face while he shopped in a West Hills, California store on June 28.

‘Live and let live’

After sharing her story through the petition, Softic said she has mostly seen support from her fellow shoppers. One or two responders called her a “Karen.” But Softic said that a failure to speak up in the face of maskless shoppers is a harmful impulse during a pandemic that has killed over 164,000 in the United States so far.

“Some people were saying, ‘Live and let live,'” Softic said. “Well … precisely.”

She said that like other retailers, Lowe’s should begin treating masks as a prerequisite for service during the pandemic. Distributing masks to those shoppers who don’t have them is already an official Lowe’s policy. Softic said the company should take that a step forward by refusing to serve – and expelling – consumers who refuse to wear masks.

Because of the pandemic, retail workers have found themselves in the middle of a heated culture war over coronavirus-related policies. Heated exchanges between anti-mask shoppers and employees have led to hundreds of assaults and even the May murder of a Family Dollar security guard.

“We will not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks, so we are consistently requesting that customers wear masks for the safety of everyone in our stores,” a Lowe’s spokesperson previously said in a statement to Business Insider.

Softic said she understands the perspective of store workers, and that it’s” difficult for employees to confront people.” But she said that there are other groups that the Lowe’s in downtown Richmond has frequently confronted. She’s seen employees detain shoplifters, and boot intoxicated or apparently homeless individuals who enter the store.

“There’s a way to refuse service,” she said. “They have done it before. They’re just choosing not to do it on this particular issue. They’re not throwing out people who are endangering other peoples’ lives by not wearing masks. So I think they have their priorities wrong.”

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