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Wegmans addresses mask enforcement after Cayuga County fine gains attention
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Wegmans addresses mask enforcement after Cayuga County fine gains attention

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Auburn Wegmans 2019 9 (copy)

FILE - The exterior of Wegmans in Auburn is shown in this February 2019 photo. 

Wegmans responded on Wednesday after renewed attention to its refusal to sign a consent order in Cayuga County acknowledging that it violated the state COVID-19 mask mandate. 

In a statement posted to its Twitter account, the supermarket chain — which is based in Rochester and has 104 locations, including a store in Auburn — said that customers are "required to wear a face covering while shopping in our stores in accordance with applicable local or state mandates." 

"Anyone who enters our stores without a mask is approached by one of our people and offered a free mask," the company wrote. "Through ongoing monitoring, we continue to see 99% compliance with the mask mandates from our customers. Thank you to all who voluntarily comply." 

Wegmans also updated a section on its website titled, "Customer Face Covering Mandates." The passage is similar to the statement released by the company, which reiterates that there is 99% compliance with the mask mandates from its customers. However, it add that "[w]hile we would love for that to be 100%, we have to balance that 1% with the risks of asking our employees to confront unmasked customers." 

The supermarket chain was a trending topic on Twitter after a reporter at The Citizen tweeted about the company's handling of a consent order issued by the Cayuga County Health Department. The matter was addressed at the Cayuga County Board of Health's September meeting. 

The health department issues consent orders for first-time violators of the COVID-19 regulations, specifically the requirement that individuals must wear face coverings when they can't socially distance in public. Businesses must enforce the order. If a business has customers or employees not wearing masks, they can face penalties. For the first offense in Cayuga County, it's a $50 fine. 

Eileen O'Connor, the county's director of environmental health, told board members at the September meeting that Wegmans was issued a consent order for violating the COVID-19 mask mandate. O'Connor added that the company paid a $50 fine, but did not sign the consent order. Part of the consent order is an agreement to pay the $50 fine "in lieu of attending a board of health hearing where a $1,000 fine may be assessed." 

By signing the consent order, a business also agrees to "correct the behavior that caused this violation and will comply with the emergency orders and public health directives as required." 

O'Connor said at the time that an attorney representing Wegmans sent the county a letter responding to the consent order. In summarizing the letter, O'Connor said Wegmans "felt that they were not responsible for their customers." 

The health department planned to discuss the letter with Christopher Palermo, the county attorney. There wasn't any more discussion about Wegmans at the board of health's meetings in October and November. 

Another reason the situation involving Wegmans is receiving more attention is how other businesses, especially small businesses operated by local owners, are affected by the COVID-19 mandates. Ed and Jean's, a grocery store in Port Byron, has been fined twice for violating the mask mandate. The store was fined $500 — a penalty that was approved by the board of health on Tuesday — after a health department inspector observed two employees not wearing face coverings. 

But The Citizen has received numerous complaints about larger chains, such as Walmart and Wegmans, not enforcing the mask rules. It's unknown if similar complaints have been sent to the local health department or any other agency. The health department wasn't immediately available for comment on Wednesday. 

At the board of health meeting in September, Nancy Purdy, the department's director of community health services, questioned Wegmans' pandemic response. 

"I just don't think they believe in it. That's the bottom line," she said. "Because Wegmans would be out there in front to implement any strategy and use all the human behavior techniques to get it done. I just don't think they believe in it." 

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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