Here’s what I found counting mask-wearers in supermarkets
We’re just about at the peak of the COVID omicron variant this week and that means mask-wearing also seems about as high as it’s been since the early days of the pandemic.
How high? I took a tour of six large stores Thursday and counted masks — a half-hour at each one. The results surprised me. I figured we’d see at most two-thirds of people wearing masks, especially since few cities and towns have a mandate in place for indoor places and the governor has
declined to restart the statewide mask rule.
In all, I hit five supermarkets and one large discount department store, in six different cities and towns. I counted a grand total of 496 customers, not employees, as they left the checkout lines and headed for the exits.
The result: 400 of the 496, or 81 percent, not only had a mask on, but had it covering their mouth and nose. Another 73, or 15 percent, had no mask at all, and the rest, 23 people, wore a mask that didn’t cover their nose. One person had an N95 mask not covering his nose; go figure.
Eighty-one percent is a hefty number and it seems to back up Gov. Ned Lamont’s contention, which he repeats often, that people are doing the right thing on their own.
Would the totals be higher if we did have a statewide rule? Two of the cities, New Haven and Norwalk, have a mandate in place. That appears to drive their facecovering numbers upward.
This is not a scientific poll; it’s just six slices in time. But I conducted a careful count. I tried hard to capture every single person checking out at every location, continuously for 30 minutes — not easy at a busy store with people leaving in two directions. Take these results as a general guide rather than a town-by-town comparison.
The store-by-store tour
Who’s not wearing masks? It varied. Four of the five maskless people I counted at the Whole Foods in Milford were middle-aged women.
In Stratford, at a large chain supermarket that I’m not naming because I didn’t check in with management, there were 21 maskless customers checking out between 5:15 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. Oddly, or maybe not oddly, well over half were young men with beards.
One young woman at the Stratford store was horrified
that I caught her without a mask. I approached her because she was with someone who did have a mask on, who turned out to be her sister.
“I wear it everywhere I go and I change it every day,” said Nicole Resto, a school bus driver who lives in Bridgeport.
But she and her sister, Natahsha Resto, had just come from the gym and ran into the supermarket for just one item, some meat for dinner. By the time she noticed she wasn’t protected, Nicole was entering the store and she figured she’d just run in and out.
She’s fully vaccinated; her sister, who wore a black medical mask, has not been vaccinated but will get the first shot soon.
“I walked in there, I felt really uncomfortable,” Nicole said — all the more since she just got over a relatively minor case of COVID-19 around Christmas time. That was her second bout with the illness. The first was much worse, in April of 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
The lesson: It’s hard to draw conclusions about anything coronavirus, masks included. Still, we do see patterns and one of them was evident at the Seymour store in the heart of the Naugatuck Valley — an area with more blue-collar, conservative residents and more opposition to restrictions.
In all other stores I visited, the totals of mask-wearing ranged from 79 percent to 95 percent. Seymour had just 25 percent — and I might add that most of the workers were unmasked as well.
Perhaps it was skewed by the late hour and the fact that customers at 9 p.m., when I arrived, were young. With just 32 people in the store in the half-hour, aisles were sparse and distancing easier. Unlike at the other stores, I didn’t see a sign at the door in Seymour asking customers to don a facecovering.
The Norwalk store had a large sign out front: “Shoppers
must wear a cloth face covering or face mask whle inside the store.” The result: In my 8 p.m. visit, also a quiet time with just 42 customers, all but two wore a mask.
The Milford Whole Foods supermarket clocked in with 93 percent compliance. I’m naming it because management asked what I was doing and agreed but asked me to stand outside the door, . There, a smaller sign read, “CDC guidance currently recommends that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks while indoors.”
The Stratford store, the busiest that I visited, had the largest number of non-maskwearers, typically in the self-checkout area. Though they’re not part of the count, I noticed at least two staff members were not masked.
The New Haven store, in a neighborhood outside of downtown on a busy boulevard, had just five nonwearers but 10 whose masks didn’t cover their noses, pushing down the total there to 84 percent masked.
‘A shared sense of responsibility’
At least one woman had two masks on; should I count her twice?
No, said Gene Sheehan, a public relations consultant whose call I returned during the New Haven count as I stood by the door. But he said, “That’s proper-plus.”
Sheehan has observed mask-wearing closely and said it has “skyrocketed” in just the last week or 10 days, since the omicron variant has pushed the positive test rate over 20 percent in Connecticut and hospitalizations have hot near-record highs.
“There is a shared sense of responsibility,” Sheehan said, adding that the lesseffective cloth masks have given way to more N95 and medical masks.
Throughout six hours of close monitoring, I didn’t see a single interaction about masks, though I could easily have missed it.
If were were being scientific about this, we’d have to consider all sorts of variables and control the study to isolate for how each of them affected mask wearing. The list is long: City or town, time of day, type of mask, type of store, crowd size in the store, rules that are or aren’t in place, enforcement of the rules and the age of customers.
Age was clearly a factor in the large discount store that I targeted in North Haven. It was early afternoon with many retired customers. The store made an announcement while I was there, “masks are strongly recommended for guests who are not fully vaccinated,” and for others as well, the loudspeaker message said.