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Waterstones’ mask policy causes controversy among readers

On 13 July, Waterstones – one of the first large businesses to do so – announced that it would be encouraging customers to “wear face masks and observe social distancing” after the legal end of such restrictions across the country. The government has stated that social distancing and mask wearing are at the discretion of individuals, leaving businesses and event spaces scrambling to decide what their own approaches will be, with many also “encouraging” – to various degrees – continuing with safety restrictions. With Waterstones being the UK’s biggest and most prevalent bookshop chain, their decision is one that is likely to have an influence on other businesses’ choices. 

Unsurprisingly, this statement opened up an inflamed debate on Twitter and beyond, with strong opinions being voiced about the company’s decision. Many who consider themselves regulars to Waterstones gladly welcomed the request. Others joked that it was a perk the more famous names were speaking out against the tweet, who notably included Laurence Fox and Julia Hartley-Brewer. Debates (or, more often, arguments) about Covid-19 restrictions have tended to starkly show left-right political divides, and this has been no different.

Interestingly, some criticism of the company came from their standpoint not being strong enough. Those staunchly opposed to so-called “freedom day” and the end of many Covid-19 restrictions want companies to keep mask-wearing and social distancing compulsory, in order to protect both customers and employees. The removal of restrictions has been an extreme source of fear for many, with those who are immunocompromised or clinically vulnerable deeply concerned for their safety. While Waterstones’ decision does promote Covid-19 safety, the lack of legal ramifications for those going against their – and other businesses’ – rules leaves an increased sense of uncertainty and risk. This viewpoint appeared to be in the minority, though – most responses to the chain’s announcement were either strongly in favour of or against the decision. 

Bookshops are already finding it difficult to keep afloat in many cases, and small, independent businesses seem to be leaning towards maintaining restrictions

Those who are against Waterstones’ continuation of these rules have stated that they will take their business elsewhere. With many intending to migrate to Amazon, others plan to find other bookshops. However, if they’re concerned about encouraging mask-wearing and social distancing, they may not be in luck. Bookshops are already finding it difficult to keep afloat in many cases, and small, independent businesses seem to be leaning towards maintaining restrictions. While health and safety is of course a general concern, the threat of having staff off work due to illness or self-isolation could cripple already struggling businesses. Both across social media and in the shops themselves, I’ve seen plenty of advance warnings that masks, although not enforceable by law, will be strongly encouraged. The pleading tone of many of these notices, in bookshops and beyond, suggests that much of the English public is resistant to the 19 July easings of lockdown.

Noticeable across commentary in favour of Waterstones’ decision was the assertion that those who spend time in bookshops will be more likely to comply with social distancing and mask wearing due to an intellectual superiority. The elitism here does not do much to help the case of those wanting to keep restrictions in place – insults and elitism are unlikely to convert anyone to a different viewpoint. Whether or not more prolific readers are more likely to wear a mask than those who would never step foot in a bookshop is irrelevant. In creating these divisions, seen across a range of Covid-19 and restriction-related debates, absolutely no progress is made in terms of improving health and safety or mending our deeply fractured social divides. The Waterstones debate has provoked extreme reactions on both sides – with the world in its current state, it seems like the smallest things will send people into a rage. 

The elitism here does not do much to help the case of those wanting to keep restrictions in place – insults and elitism are unlikely to convert anyone to a different viewpoint

Waterstones’ decision is one made in good faith, to help protect people and maintain some sense of safety. It really isn’t that hard to wear a mask, and your book-buying experience will not be marred by it. If people choose not to shop at Waterstones due to this, then that’s their loss – a bookshop full of those who are interested in keeping themselves and others safe is far more appealing than one that is not.

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