CAPITAL REGION — Stewart’s Shops President Gary Dake has different people mad at him now.
This week, it’s the people who don’t believe they should be required to wear a facial mask while in Stewart’s stores, because the convenience store chain last weekend began strictly enforcing the requirement. Before, the anger came from the people who said the popular chain was too lax in its enforcement.
The convenience store chain, with 327 stores spread across northeastern New York, cracked down after Dake said the state Department of Health threatened fines for retailers that don’t enforce the state’s mask requirements.
“My big concern going into it is that there are a lot of very angry customers out there about masks, now we’re hearing from them, where before we were hearing from the people who upset that we weren’t enforcing it,” Dake said at a Saratoga Springs shop on Wednesday.
At that store on Broadway, and across the chain, there are new signs on the doors warning “NO MASK, NO SERVICE,” by order of state health officials, who are trying to prevent spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Dake said the policy changed after Friday afternoon, when he received an email informing him of a new emergency order from DOH requiring retailers to enforce the requirement in their stores, with a potential fine of $2,000 per day per store — or $4.5 million per week for the whole chain — for inaction.
That changed his thinking, since before that there had been no enforcement pressure on retailers.
“My people are not law enforcement. If it is a regulation between the man in the street and the state, it is not my job to enforce it,” Dake said. “Quite frankly, I’ve told my partners to go ahead and quote-unquote, ‘Blame the state,’ because it is not a Stewart’s rule, we are now enforcing a state rule.”
Also on Wednesday, Walmart — the nation’s largest retailer — announced that it will start enforcing a mandatory mask policy for customers in all its U.S. stores next Monday. Other national chains, including Starbucks, has announced similar policies in recent weeks, as the novel coronavirus has continued to spread in the South and West.
New York saw its COVID cases spike in April, leading to a shutdown of much of the economy, which is now re-opening. Stewart’s shops were deemed essential, and remained open throughout.
Dake said it’s important that all retailers enforce mask requirements, so angry customers can’t simply go somewhere else. The previous policy of not enforcing was based on concerns about keeping employees safe, he said.
In the weeks leading up to the shift in policy, the chain was on the receiving end of some heated online criticism for its perceived laxity in comparison with some other convenience store and grocery chains in the region. When pressed, company officials said their goal wasn’t to enforce, but to “educate.”
“Every day you see stories about violence, people being a little irrational, and I don’t want to put my partners at risk,” he said. “We’re at the point now where it has become a regulatory burden on me, that I am required to enforce, subject to a fine, so I’m happy to comply.”
Dake, who wore a mask at a press conference outside the Broadway store except when at the microphone, said he personally believes everyone should wear a mask. “That’s good for our community, that’s being a good citizen,” he said.
Dake is hoping the angry reactions are short-lived.
“Now we’re refusing to serve them, and yes, there have been some thrown coffee cups, there have been some unkind words,” he said. “I’m hoping every retailer goes ahead and takes the same stance of denying service, because if you do it everywhere, it’s going to be far easier for people to get in the habit.”
The chain has required all its employees to wear face masks since shortly after the pandemic reached the region in March. Out of 4,000 employees, Dake said there have been only 10 cases of COVID, none of them recent. Other employees have been quarantined due to travel, he said.
The chain stretches from Orange and Ulster counties in the south to the Canadian border. Dake said mask use drops the further north you go, but said that isn’t necessarily a sign of resistance. “The further north you go, you get people who aren’t as accustom,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re not compliant when you tell them they have to do it.”
Dake was at the store with a representative of the New York Racing Association to announce a new partnership under which Stewart’s Shops will sell pre-loaded NYRA Bets gift cards during the Saratoga Race Course meet that starts Thursday. With fans unable to attend the races in person due to the pandemic, NYRA and Stewart’s hope people will use the gift cards to place bets from home or from off-track watch parties.