Retailers and grocers should call their local police if customers refuse to wear facemasks without good reason, the state Department of Justice said in a memo issued to businesses last week.
The memo provides direction for retailers, who feel they are getting pressure from state and local officials to order customers to mask up, said Nancy Kyle, president and chief executive of the 700-member New Hampshire Retail Association.
Store owners and their employees sometimes face pushback from customers who refuse to wear masks. Kyle noted an incident in Manchester last month, when a man threw a glass vase at a hotel clerk who asked him to wear a mask.
“Sometimes, these people on the front lines are 16-, 18-year-old kids. They shouldn’t have to deal with anything like that,” Kyle said.
In the two-page memo, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards wrote that store employees should ask customers to wear a mask. But if the customer refuses, the store should call police and not engage in further efforts.
Police are trained in de-escalation and know how to handle such conflicts, Edwards said. It’s up to local police to decide what to do.
“Every community is different, and law enforcement knows their community really well,” Edwards said in an interview. She said the memo follows protocols for police that were issued last March.
In November, Gov. Chris Sununu issued the first statewide order calling for masks in most public places.
Anyone who violates the executive order can receive a ticket-like citation that carries a fine, but violators cannot be arrested or charged with a crime.
Edwards said she has heard of police citing only one customer, a person who refused to put on a mask and refused to leave a business. Eight businesses have been cited for violations related to the mask order, she said.
“We’re not expecting a huge amount of people will refuse to wear masks. It just hasn’t happened,” Edwards said.
Manchester police spokeswoman Heather Hamel said Police Chief Allen Aldenberg knows of no cases of city businesses calling police because customers were not wearing masks.
Manchester police are not giving out citations or arresting anyone for not wearing masks. Hamel said police would intervene only if a confrontation rose to the criminal level, such as people becoming unruly or damaging property, she said.
Police chiefs across New Hampshire received the memo on Friday, and few departments have had issues dealing with masks, said Anthony Bean Burpee, the police chief in Gilford and president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
If a customer refuses to wear a mask and refuses to leave a business, a police officer would likely charge the person with criminal trespass, Bean Burpee said.
“We’ve never gotten to that here,” he said about Gilford.
Stores must ask
Kyle said she asked the attorney general for clarification and the memo is what she wanted to see.
“This should have been there from the beginning,” she said.
But Edwards said retailers are still expected to ask people to wear masks. That may be uncomfortable, but stores enforce health laws such as “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” she said. And restaurants and bars enforce laws when they refuse to serve an intoxicated customer.
If retailers want to be open during a pandemic, they need to enforce the mask order, she said.
Sununu is expected this week to extend the mask order, which expires on Friday.
Vaccine is no exception
At present, people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine are not exempt from the mask order. Few people have received a second dose, and immunity does not kick in until 14 days after the second dose, Edwards said.
The memo contains a host of recommendations for retailers: Among them:
Entrance signs requiring masks.
An employee greeter at the entrance offering masks and sanitizer.
Don’t ask for proof if a customer claims a medical exemption.
Expect masked customers to inquire about people who don’t wear masks for medical reasons.