Supermarket staff feel threatened by protesters shopping without masks

Kirsty Wynn, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 17 Feb 2022, 3:30pm
Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

Supermarket staff feel threatened by protesters shopping without masks

Kirsty Wynn, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 17 Feb 2022, 3:30pm

Supermarket workers at stores flooded with anti-mandate protesters shopping without masks are pleading with them to respect the people who are giving them "access to groceries". 

There was a reported influx of people refusing to wear masks at supermarkets near the Parliament-based protest, including nearby New World Thorndon. 

Emma Wooster from Foodstuffs appealed to protesters who went mask-free but who were not exempt. 

"We ask … don't take it out on the very people tasked with making sure you have access to groceries, show some respect for the job they're doing and fellow customers who want and need the protection," she said. 

"And let's be clear, anyone who is violent or abusive towards our team members or customers, for any reason whatsoever, will be asked to leave and the police will be called." 

Kiri Hannifin of Countdown said the mask exemption process needed urgent reworking. Photo / Supplied 

The statement comes as frontline staff at supermarkets said they feel it is more dangerous to ask protesters to put on masks and risk being harassed so they are letting them in. 

Supermarket heads said the situation is made worse by a flimsy exemption process where masks are mandatory inside supermarkets but carrying an exemption card is not. 

A regular customer of New World Thorndon said staff were "exhausted and anxious'' at the reaction from people asked to wear a mask. 

The messages of peace and community shown inside the protest grounds were not extended to others past the perimeter, she said. 

She had been abused by protesters and told to remove her mask when walking past the protest grounds on the way to work. 

The woman, who the Herald agreed not to name, said there were "heaps of protesters not wearing masks'' at New World as the occupation entered its second week. 

The woman who spoke to staff was told masks were still required but staff felt there was nothing they could do. 

The staff member said: "It is more dangerous to ask protesters to put masks on and risk being harassed than it is to just let them in." 

Another customer, wearing a mask, said he was upset at the refusal to wear masks because it was dangerous for his family member who had just come out of hospital. 

The woman said it was not right that workers in Wellington had to compromise their safety either by confronting protesters or by having people coming through without masks on. 

"It is simply not okay to preach freedom while simultaneously putting people at risk," she said. 

Wearing a mask when shopping is mandated but rules around exemption passes are flimsy say supermarket heads. Photo / file 

"It is simply not okay to only think of yourself and other protesters while ignoring the rights of others. It is simply not okay to infringe on our right to protect ourselves and our families." 

Kiri Hannifin from Countdown said the mask exemption process needed to be improved immediately. 

Under government regulations, mask-use in supermarkets was mandatory for those 12 and over, unless exempt, but exemption cards were not mandatory. 

The process left workers with no backup. 

Last weekend Countdown recorded 45 incidents of harm to staff, 21 of which were deemed to be serious. 

Team members had been racially abused, kicked shoved, and scratched. One young woman was threatened with rape over an offender's refusal to wear a mask, Hannifin said. 

Hannifin said the situation had worsened at the Cable Car Lane store with the arrival of protesters nearby. 

"Our teams are doing the best they can, but are often facing abuse when they ask customers to put their masks on. 

"To avoid conflict and a potentially dangerous situation, our team will not push the issue if people refuse." 

Hannifin said Wellington stores would remain open but called on the Ministry of Health to urgently improve the exemption process. 

"We have continued to try and work with the Ministry of Health to get the mask exemption process strengthened, but to date, there have been no improvements," she said. 

Hannifin said team members were trained on how to keep themselves and customers safe but would not hesitate to call on the police. 

"It is utterly unacceptable to have these kinds of threats made to our team as they go about their work providing food and essentials for Kiwis." 

Police said in a statement that there had been increased numbers in and around the protest and on the streets in Wellington. 

"Police have been highly visible and will continue to be around Thorndon during the protest to provide reassurance for all people."