2020 | Coronavirus

As Montgomery County mask requirement begins, grocery customers say most complied

County health officer’s order says shoppers must have face coverings at stores

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Monday was the first day customers in grocery stores and other types of retail stores were required to wear face coverings as part of a Montgomery County order.

Photo by Dan Schere

Customers at two Montgomery County grocery stores said on Monday that most people they saw followed a new requirement that shoppers wear face coverings, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The order, announced last week by County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, took effect Monday in grocery stores, pharmacies, farmers markets and other big-box retail stores in the county. The order requires stores to set limits on the number of people allowed in at once.

Foot traffic was low at Whole Foods on Woodglen Drive in North Bethesda and Harris Teeter in the Park Potomac shopping center on Monday afternoon, with no lines forming outside or at checkouts. Shoppers and employees at both stores could be seen wearing masks throughout the afternoon.

In Whole Foods, blue lines were taped to the floor instructing shoppers to keep six feet between them while queuing at checkouts or at the deli counter.

Signs throughout the store urged customers to practice social distancing, including some that instructed customers to only enter aisles from one direction.


Shoppers heading in and out of Whole Foods said they approved of the mask mandate, but some were skeptical.

Shoppers Nicole Kabia and Carrie Cothran said in an interview before they started shopping that they are worried about the consequences of the mask requirement.

Kabia and Cothran, both of whom are physical therapists, said putting on a mask can give people a false sense of security that they will be protected from the virus.

The masks could get contaminated without realizing it, Kabia said.

“People don’t realize that if you move it up or down, you’re contaminating the mask and putting yourself at higher risk,” Kabia said.

Cothran said she worries that people “might be going out more than they necessarily should,” thinking that wearing a mask lessens the need for social distancing. Montgomery County officials have included in their messages the need to continue social distancing, since masks, especially homemade ones, have limited effectiveness.

Before entering Whole Foods, Ingrid Hazbon said she thinks the social distancing practices, while needed, have meant that people “aren’t being as nice to each other.”

“Everyone just seems scared. No one wants to talk to each other. Every time someone gets near someone else, they get all scared. They just seem uneasy and I don’t like it,” she said.

Hazbon said wearing a facemask or gloves hasn’t done much to eliminate the potential for exposure.

“People still walk by each other. They’re touching things with gloves. … They use the same mask [multiple times] and they take it off. … I think it’ll be OK, though,” she said.

As Penina Handelsman was loading groceries into her car, she applauded the county for its policy.

“It’s excellent. I hope they maintain this policy until there’s a vaccine and everybody can be tested,” she said.

Handelsman said everyone she encountered in Whole Foods was wearing a mask. She said the cashier cleaned the conveyor belt each time after checking each person out.

A manager at Whole Foods declined to speak to a reporter on Monday, referring all questions to the company’s corporate office.

Company spokeswoman Rachel Malish wrote in an email in response to questions about Montgomery County’s order that Whole Foods employees at all stores are required to wear masks. Face shields, she wrote, will also be offered to workers as an option.

“These actions — combined with our previously implemented safety measures including social distancing, crowd control, and temperature screenings for in-store workers — will help protect our team members and Prime Now shoppers who continue to provide critical services in our communities,” she wrote.

Harris Teeter has implemented similar social distancing policies, with green circles on the floor that were six feet apart to ensure that customers maintain six feet of distance.

A manager at the Potomac store referred all questions to the company’s corporate office. Spokeswoman Danna Robinson wrote in an email Monday that all stores have reduced their capacity to 50%. Once the capacity is reached, a line is to form outside the store.

“As far are the ordinance requiring masks, we have distributed signs to our stores to display that remind shoppers to wear a mask when shopping Harris Teeter,” she wrote.

Paul Choi, as he left the store on Monday, said Montgomery County’s order should have been done sooner. The overall shopping experience with the mask order in place, he said, was reassuring.

“It was so much better. I feel safer,” he said.

Some employees, however, were not wearing masks, Choi said.

A guide to the order

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, announced last week that shoppers must wear face coverings at grocery stores, pharmacies and other types of large retail stores that have stayed open during the COVID-19 pandemic. The order took effect Monday.

Violating the order carries a $500 fine on the first offense and a $750 fine for each additional violation.

Highlights of the order include:

  • Customers must wear face coverings in grocery stores, pharmacies and “large retail establishments.” Cloth coverings are acceptable and surgical masks such as the N95 mask, the order states, should be reserved for medical professionals. Julie Parker, a spokeswoman for the county, wrote in an email the order applies to farmers markets, too.
  • Stores must set capacity limits and have customers form lines outside that “promote social distancing spaces” for customers who are waiting to get in.
  • Employees must provide clean restrooms with soap for workers. Workers must be allowed to wash their hands every 30 minutes.
  • Employees must wear “facial coverings.” Employers must provide them when needed.
  • There must be physical distancing measures within stores. The county recommends barriers between cashiers and customers.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com