COVID-19: Retail NZ slams Government for mask rules as retail workers suffer abuse

Retail New Zealand says the Government is failing to help the retail sector who are suffering abuse for enforcing mask mandates without clear guidelines.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced on Wednesday at 11:59pm New Zealand will shift to the less restrictive orange level of the COVID Protection Framework, also known as the traffic light system. 

The move to orange ends indoor capacity limits as well as the requirement for hospitality guests to be seated and separated. But face masks will remain in place for retail, public transport, flights and public venues like libraries. 

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford told AM on Thursday there have been hundreds of incidents reported to them about customers abusing retail workers. 

"There are lots of customers who are declaring themselves self-exempt from the rules that apply and what we are finding is there is lots of aggression, lots of general nastiness from people who don't like wearing masks," Harford said.  

"There are hundreds if not thousands of incidents every week being reported to us about members of the public just losing it a little bit over the fact they're being asked to wear a mask."

The Unite against COVID-19 website said if you cannot wear a face mask, you can request a communication card from the Ministry of Health. You can then show the card to transport operators, retailers and service providers. However there are widespread reports of the system being abused.

Harford told AM it's important to keep people safe but there is no logic behind the current mask rules. 

"There does come a point where the rules don't make sense," Harford said. 

"Essentially, the Government is now saying it is ok to go to a crowded pub or cafe and not wear a mask but you need to wear a mask when you go into a shop unless you don't really like them and you have declared yourself to be exempted, it just really doesn't make sense." 

But Hipkins told AM there is a good reason masks are staying mandatory in retail outlets such as supermarkets.

"The issue here is: people have to go to the supermarket and so you're going to have people who are elderly, who are immunocompromised - they've still got to go to the supermarket alongside everybody else," he told AM. "The decision to go to a nightclub - that's a choice people make."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: AM

Harford said Retail NZ has consistently raised their concerns with the Government but still no changes have been made. 

"We've been talking to the Government for months and months, particularly around the mask exemptions," he told AM. 

"The Government has completely failed to take account of the issue or take any practical steps to deal with it."

Hipkins signalled on Wednesday changes would be coming soon for the mask exemption process.

Watch the full interview above.