Require masks in grocery stores to fight COVID-19
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Galen G. Weston, CEO of Loblaws
Michael Medline, CEO of Sobeys
Eric R. La Flèche, CEO of Metro
Pierre Riel, SVP & GM Costco Canada
Lee Tappenden, CEO of Walmart Canada
Loblaws, Sobeys, Metro, Costco, and Walmart, together share roughly 80% of the market for grocery stores across Canada. That means that 4 out of every 5 Canadians get their food from these stores or one of their subsidiaries. A decision from the top management of these companies to require employees and customers to wear masks in their grocery stores would have a profound, positive impact on the health of Canadians.
As at May 5, 2020, Canada has had over 60,000 official confirmed cases of COVID-19 and almost 4,000 deaths. Experts say that the actual numbers are likely much higher. While public health measures have done much to limit these figures, SARS-CoV-2 is likely going to be with us for a long time and these figures will only climb higher. Fortunately, research shows that masks can play an important role in reducing community transmission of a virus.(i)(ii)
Studies show that putting almost any barrier in front of your mouth and nose is helpful. For example, an experiment reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, shows that a simple washcloth over a speaker's mouth virtually eliminates droplets and aerosols from entering the surrounding environment.(iii) Epidemiologists call this ‘source control’ and it's a principal argument behind the widespread use of do-it-yourself masks. Requiring everyone to wear masks is particularly important since a high percentage of SARS-CoV-2 carriers do not exhibit symptoms(iv)(v) and, according to several studies, people might actually be the most contagious during this period.(vi)
In the United States, the CDC “recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores).”(vii) Similarly, Health Canada acknowledges that masks are helpful “when physical distancing is not possible in public settings, such as when grocery shopping.”(viii)
In North America, numerous grocery stores provide their employees with masks. Some retailers, such as Costco (US), Whole Foods, and Longo’s in Canada already require both their employees and shoppers to wear masks. In Europe, countries like Germany, France, Spain, and Italy all require their citizens to wear masks in various public places. The same is true in countries all over the world. In the US, many states and cities now require the use of masks in grocery stores. Editorials inThe New England Journal of Medicine(ix), the British Medical Journal(x), and public health experts around the world are all calling on the use of masks in public.(xi)(xii)
While masks offer some protection to the wearer, when it comes to source control, the primary benefit is for others. A policy that requires only employees to wear masks but not shoppers offers important protection for the latter, but little for the former. Such a policy also does little to prevent shopper-to-shopper transmission. A policy that requires both employees and shoppers to wear masks would provide maximum benefit for all. Such a policy would also minimize the creation of fomites as droplets and aerosols that are filtered by masks won't contaminate groceries.
The news is now filled with examples of grocery store workers being diagnosed with COVID-19. Many have passed away. Countless undocumented cases likely have their origins in grocery stores too. As an enclosed space where physical distancing is difficult and thousands pass through daily, grocery stores are likely a notable source of community transmission.
Requiring shoppers to wear face coverings for the one hour a week they visit your stores is not too onerous. Do-it-yourself masks are easy to make using readily available household materials such as t-shirts, tea towels, and elastic bands. Masks can also be purchased online or from local sewists at nominal cost and many community groups are even distributing homemade masks at no cost. While in practice, no one should be turned away from buying food, a policy that attempts to ensure the majority of people in a store are using masks will help to reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and ensure the safety of your employees and customers.
While governments and public health officials are well-positioned to address collective action problems, businesses can often play a critical role in catalyzing positive actions. Please don’t wait for governments, health officials, or your competitors to act. The undersigned urge each of you to protect your employees, customers, and communities in which you operate by requiring the use of masks in your grocery stores. Your positive example can also create an important precedent that helps to normalize the use of masks in Canada and contributes to a broader strategy that limits the spread of the virus.
During this unprecedented time of crisis, Canadians need your leadership. Please make the use of masks a requirement in your grocery stores to help fight COVID-19 and save lives.
(i) Brienen, N.C.J., Timen, A., et al. (2010) The Effect of Mask Use on the Spread of Influenza During a Pandemic. Risk Analysis.
(ii) Gray, R. (May 4, 2020). Why we should all be wearing face masks. BBC.
(iii) Anfinrud, P. Stadnytskyi, V. (April 15, 2020). Visualizing Speech-Generated Oral Fluid Droplets with Laser Light Scattering. The New England Journal of Medicine.
(iv) John, T. (April 3, 2020). Iceland lab's testing suggests 50% of coronavirus cases have no symptoms. CNN.
(v) Pickrell, R. (Apr 17, 2020) Sweeping US Navy testing reveals most aircraft carrier sailors infected with coronavirus had no symptoms. Business Insider.
(vi) He, X., & Lau, E. H. Y., et al. (April 15, 2020). Temporal dynamics in viral shedding and transmissibility of COVID-19. Nature Medicine.
(vii) National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. (April 3, 2020). Recommendation Regarding the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Especially in Areas of Significant Community-Based Transmission. CDC.
(viii) Health Canada (May 4, 2020). Non-medical masks and face coverings. Health Canada.
(ix) Gandhi, M., Yokoe, D., & Havlir, D. (April 24, 2020). Asymptomatic Transmission, the Achilles’ Heel of Current Strategies to Control Covid-19. The New England Journal of Medicine.
(x) Javid, B., Weekes, M.P., & Matheson, N.J. (April 9, 2020). Covid-19: should the public wear face masks? BMJ.
(xi) Greenhalgh, T., Schmid, M.B., et al. (April 9, 2020) Face masks for the public during the covid-19 crisis. BMJ.
(xii) Cheng, K.K., Lam, T.H., & Leung, C.C. (April 16, 2020). Wearing face masks in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic: altruism and solidarity. The Lancet.
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