Retailers in England have said the number of customers wearing a face covering has increased since the law was implemented last Friday, but some challenges remain.

From 24 July, the government enforced new legislation making it mandatory to wear face masks in enclosed public spaces. Those who fail to comply could be fined up to £100, or £50 if they pay within 14 days.

The same rule has been active in Scotland since 10 July.

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Public response

Despite concerns over customer dissatisfaction or potential conflicts, retailers told betterRetailing they were “pleasantly surprised” the first morning of trading when the law came into effect.

Jacqui Dales, of London Road Bakery in Boston, Lincolnshire, said she had been “dreading the day”, but it was “much better than expected”.

“Probably more than 80% of customers have come in with masks on, and the others have either bought a mask from us or they’ve pulled a T-shirt up over their face,” she said.

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Nearly a week on, Samantha Coldbeck, of Wharfedale Premier Convenience in Hull, explained: “I would say nearly 90% of my customers are now wearing them. On Friday, it was mixed, but over the weekend we noticed an increase.”

Her staff have been wearing visors on the shop floor to help encourage compliance.

“Retailers can enforce the law without challenging people,” she said. “Last week, our staff started wearing shields to give a really strong message, and express that all we are asking from them is to keep us and themselves safe.”

Exemption challenges

Retailers said exemptions are making it difficult to police the rule.

Those exempt include children aged under 11; those with a physical or mental illness, or a disability; people for whom wearing or removing a mask will cause severe distress; and anyone assisting someone who relies on lip reading to communicate.

Scottish retailer Hussan Lal told betterRetailing: “It’s really difficult to enforce the rule when people may have a legitimate reason for not wearing a mask. I don’t really know how to have a conversation about it with them because it’s very personal.”

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When asked how retailers should handle customers who are exempt, ACS chief executive James Lowman responded: “This is a system that is built on trust between members of the public and store colleagues, and it is important to remember that some customers may be unable to wear a face covering for a variety of reasons, such as those related to health or communication.”

Coldbeck added that she has provided some of her customers with a hidden disability identification card. “I have only paid for one of these for my loyal customers, but I want them to know we support them,” she said.

Illicit fears

Chief strategy officer for counterfeit experts Incopro, Piers Barclay, said he has seen an “explosion of counterfeit personal protective equipment (PPE) and products” due to recent increased demand.

Research by the company revealed that 66% of the first-page results for ‘surgical face mask’ on Google are illegitimate websites, and 45% of the first-page results for ‘surgical masks’ on Amazon UK have negative reviews relating to a false description or poor quality.

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Barclay advised retailers to be cautious of buying PPE from suppliers they don’t recognise, and not to make purchases from sellers on social media.

Online cash and carry BrownBox began selling masks directly to independent stores in May, with orders delivered free by news wholesalers.

Founder Richard Lamb said: “Buy sensibly, and only from people with whom you have dealt with before. If you are wary, then you can request to see the certificates to prove the goods are legitimate.”

In-store dining

Customers are allowed to take off their masks to eat, drink or take medication, but retailer Mo Razzaq has been discouraging the use of his in-store dining area.

Owner of a Family Shopper in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, Razzaq told betterRetailing: “We’ve asked our customers not to sit in and eat, because it prevents more people being able to enter the store due to the limit.”

However, he has made disabled customers and emergency workers exempt from this.

“We want our customers to know we are mindful of how difficult this time has been for them,” he said.

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