The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday May 29th

Op-ed: The importance of retail workers and how we can protect them

If you’ve stepped foot into a store lately, odds are that you’ve been bombarded by the usual holiday sights, smells and sounds. Although we’ve barely made it into November, many stores have already begun lining their shelves with holiday-themed items, blasting holiday music on repeat and generally doing their best to inflict — er, provide — holiday cheer.

As we enter our second holiday season of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge the sacrifices that retail workers have made — and continue to make — so we may safely shop in person during the ongoing public health crisis. And above giving retail workers a well-deserved, metaphorical pat on the back, it’s also important for those of us who plan to shop in person to collectively commit to simple actions, like following local mask policies and getting vaccinated, so that everyone can stay healthy throughout the holidays. 

The act of acknowledging retail workers’ sacrifices is not new. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, people who worked in grocery stores, retail stores and other high-contact, public-facing positions were often heralded as heroes. Seemingly overnight, the public’s perception of working in service positions shifted: We began to not only acknowledge retail workers’ daily battles against “Karens,” but their efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

And in those early days of the pandemic, the appreciation for retail workers didn’t stop there. Soon enough, public displays of adoration for our newfound “heroes next door” became commonplace. From applause sessions for frontline workers to Marvel tweets to corporate-sponsored hazard payouts, the essential work done by those working in this public-facing sector became widely acknowledged as the society-driving work that it has always been. 

Now that it has been more than a year and a half since the United States' initial lockdowns, the once-deafening cheers for essential retail workers have quieted to a nearly inaudible murmur — despite the notable risk of COVID-19 that still exists for those who work in these high-contact positions. While the words of appreciation for frontline retail workers may have faded, the same cannot be said about the health risks faced by the more than 14.8 million people in the U.S. who work in these crucial positions. 

So, how can we bring back the care and support we gave essential retail workers early on in the pandemic? What steps can we all take to keep our community’s retail workers safe and healthy this holiday season? 

To start, those who are eligible and medically able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine can get vaccinated as soon as possible (if they have not already done so). Our current COVID-19 vaccines have been found to be more than 90 percent effective at reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection and severe illness among people who are fully vaccinated. By getting vaccinated, we can not only reduce the risk of COVID-19 for ourselves, but we can also reduce the risk of passing COVID-19 on to everyone we have contact with — including retail workers. 

In addition to getting vaccinated, those who plan to shop in-person this holiday season can — and should — commit to following local or state-level mask mandates each time they visit public spaces. A recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the effectiveness of county- and state-level mask mandates found that between March and December of 2020, areas within the U.S. that instituted mask mandates experienced decreases in both their rates of new COVID-19 cases and deaths during this period. And, as an added bonus, masking up each time you go out can symbolize to others that you care about the well-being of each retail employee, customer and community member you come into contact with. It’s a win-win on both fronts.

As the holiday season approaches and more people head into stores in search of the perfect gift, remember that for the millions of people behind the register, stocking shelves and helping customers, your shopping trip could result in their trip to the doctor. By taking the proper precautions — including getting vaccinated and wearing a mask — we can reduce the risk of “Scrooging” up someone’s holiday season and ensure that the “most wonderful time of the year” is also the healthiest. 

Taya Westfield

UNC graduate student in Gillings School of Public Health

Class of 2023


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