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“Oh, better put our masks on,” a woman says to her friend outside a homeware shop in Camberwell, south London, fishing around in her bag. He shrugs and follows her inside, opting to go without.
It’s the first day that face coverings have been compulsory for customers in England’s shops, and most people are complying on this high street. But the exchange sums up the dilemma for some shopkeepers.
On one side of the road, a mum ushers her two daughters into Lidl – the three of them clad in matching face coverings. On the other, a woman hovers outside a shop front, sussing out with the sales assistant whether she can come in without one.
“Keep distance please!” reads a sign in the window of Ragini Patel’s stationery shop. She says all she can do is ask customers to wear face coverings but some of the older customers, in particular, don’t listen. One customer was even aggressive when she reminded him about social distancing.
“There’s no point saying anything to anybody, you don’t want to get in trouble,” she shrugs.
A hundred miles away, in Birmingham, another shopper, Laura, told BBC Radio 5 Live she had been in a branch of supermarket Aldi this morning where a couple of people weren’t wearing face coverings.
She didn’t approve. “If there’s even a remote possibility that wearing a mask can reduce infection rate then it’s worth it. It’s not a hardship,” she added.
Meanwhile, listener Paul said he had been on the receiving end of some “mask outrage” this morning in Maidenhead, Berkshire, when he went into Tesco without a face covering after a bike ride.
He said it was an “honest mistake” but a fellow shopper berated him. “She just went to town on me,” Paul said. “I’ve been rightfully scolded.”
Like many shopping areas across the country, stores in the Liverpool One complex have put up signs telling customers to wear face coverings.
But Susan Green, 57, in Liverpool, said: “I think it is a little bit late to have introduced this and lots of people I’ve seen this morning are not even wearing one.
“It won’t put me off coming to the shops because I’ll be out anyway but it does seem a bit unnecessary.”
Liverpool One also has a new vending machine selling face coverings in a multitude of styles – and they have sprung up on other high streets too.
Back in Camberwell, at the Scope charity shop, Dawn Suleyman says only one customer has come in today without a face covering – and was grateful when she handed her a spare.
She agrees that it might not be wise to challenge customers, since there have been instances when staff have been verbally abused for asking shoppers to use the hand sanitiser pump. Leaning over to tap the counter to her left, she adds: “So far today, touch wood, we’ve not had any problems.”
“I wouldn’t say to someone, ‘You can’t come in because you haven’t got a mask on,'” says Dawn, who is exempt when she goes shopping because she suffers from asthma. “I’d explain to them, ‘You do realise that you could possibly get a fine? And if you haven’t got a mask I’m happy to give you one.'”
Melanie Wall from Chloe James boutique in St Albans says there’s been a “great reaction” among her shop’s customers.
“People are very happy to wear face masks – it sparks conversation and banter when they come in… we talk about the different styles – it’s been really well accepted,” she said.
“We did have a lady who approached the front door and said, ‘I haven’t got a face mask but I’m here to buy a face mask’. She obviously couldn’t come into the shop… but I served her from the doorstep, so it was a lovely funny moment.”
Meanwhile, one shopper in the city told the BBC she was “really pleased” the rules have come in, adding: “It’s given us more confidence to come into town. We’ve been avoiding it up to now.”
In Leicester – the first city in England to have a local lockdown imposed – the new rules on face coverings came in on the same day some non-essential stores were allowed to reopen.
Callum Goodson, 22, a buyer with clothes store Pilot in the Lanes shopping area, said levels of compliance from customers had so far been high.
Mr Goodson said: “Everyone coming into the store have been wearing masks. If anyone does come in without a mask, we can offer them one.
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“If they refuse it’s down to us if we accept that – but we haven’t had to do that so far.”
There were no problems for forgetful shoppers in Bristol either, where city council staff had bought in 80,000 masks to hand out in the city’s shopping areas.
In Camberwell, not everyone is quite so worried about enforcing the regulations. In a photo-printing shop, the sales assistant says customers have been compliant. They have a stash of reusable masks they can give out in return for a charity donation, but she doesn’t know what she’d do if someone refused. “I’m sure we could politely tell them to put it on,” she says.
In the arcade, a security guard with a face covering stands outside Poundland. Two women browse the “two for £5” stands in a nearby clothes shop – both wearing masks, though the shop assistant is barefaced, which is acceptable under the rules.
Around the corner in a hardware shop, Arjan Patel says some builders have come in without face coverings but most people have been compliant.
“What can we say? It’s their choice, isn’t it?” he says. The shop needs customers, after all.
“We can’t police it anyway, but maybe a bit more diplomacy might help.”
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