Greeter

A Lululemon greeter welcomes customers and monitors the number of people inside the store on Friday afternoon, July 31, 2020, in downtown Bozeman.

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Walmart stations up to three people to perform the role. One might count how many customers enter the store. Another might remind those entering of the mandate for wearing masks in public places. A third might offer a free face covering.

Hours, or days, could go by without a confrontation. Then a customer could walk by with their face uncovered, maybe for medical or religious reasons or simply to rebel against the requirement.

One, on Thursday morning, said she’d remove her mask within two minutes because it impeded her breathing. The three employees couldn’t stop her.

Thus is the life of a mask enforcer, the gatekeepers to some stores throughout Bozeman, human reminders of Gov. Steve Bullock’s mandate, but hamstrung in the ways they can influence the behavior of would-be customers.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, and mask mandates have become more common, enforcing rules remains ambiguous. Gallatin County’s rule, which focuses on wearing masks in public indoor settings, went into effect July 24 and people could be charged with a misdemeanor for not complying.

The health department, though, said education will be prioritized rather than enforcement.

A week later, the employees at the entrances are often the ones monitoring, even though their influence is limited.

“Compliance or defiance. That’s just how it is,” said one Walmart employee standing by the entrance. “We try to be as careful as possible.”

This employee, who asked not to be identified, has received angry comments, been called names and told the store’s rule is “B.S.” Employees have also fielded questions as to why they let customers in without masks.

Walmart’s policy allows people to enter without masks if they refer to medical or religious reasons. But if some want to disregard the rule for any other reason, the greeters don’t do much.

“We usually ask, ‘Would you like a mask?’ if we see them without a mask,” the employee said. “If they say no, we say ‘Have a good day.’”

Multiple Walmart associates said they try to stay calm, not take things personally and accept not everyone entering the store will oblige.

Another employee said they focus on staying positive and thank customers for shopping at Walmart. That sometimes catches people off guard and alters the tone of the conversation.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath,” the employee said.

“We have associates trained to improve customer compliance of our company-wide mask mandate,” Walmart spokesperson Rebecca Thomason said. “They assist in de-escalating conflict if needed and treat situations where a customer may not be able to wear a mask due to health or religious reasons.”

Sometimes, if customers express feeling uncomfortable while shopping at Walmart, employees have referred them to online options. The store offers ways to order online and receive packages delivered to cars. It also offers free masks, which shoppers are often grateful for if they forgot theirs.

Other stores throughout Bozeman have also introduced the greeter position. They remind customers of the rules, count capacity within the store and make sure people are entering and exiting through the correct doors. They try to catch any issues before they boil over. The feedback has been mostly positive, the role has also entailed diffusing tense situations.

Following controversy surrounding the county’s implementation of a mask mandate, businesses are learning how to acclimate.

“We do our best out here to handle what we can,” a Walmart employee said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.