Consumer Watch: Cover up when you're out - it might help save lives

Police Minister Bheki Cele, who has been vocal about enforcing the ban on cigarettes and alcohol during the lockdown, seems to be wearing his mask incorrectly. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Police Minister Bheki Cele, who has been vocal about enforcing the ban on cigarettes and alcohol during the lockdown, seems to be wearing his mask incorrectly. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 20, 2020


A lack of facial coverings and inappropriate use of masks in retail spaces are exposing the public to disease transmission. The risk is compounded by poor examples set by public officials, a lack of education, and minimal enforcement of correct personal protection equipment (PPE) usage.

In retail environments, this places staff and customers at a higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus and other pathogens. Some stores have been forced to close temporarily for decontamination after staff members tested positive, including Checkers in the Bayside Mall in Table View, Cape Town, and the Ballito Junction Mall, north of Durban.

On April 2, a Shoprite in Bothasig was closed and in Johannesburg, the Blubird Shopping Centre and Boksburg North branches of Dis-Chem pharmacy were similarly affected.

With the pandemic top of mind, readers are concerned about person-to-person transmission. Complaints have ranged from staff wearing face shields as “Alice bands”, tilted away from the face; to bakery and deli staff either not wearing face coverings or covering only their mouths; and inconsistent enforcement of mask-wearing on the shop floor.

While the efficacy of masks in stopping Covid-19 is debatable, there’s widespread agreement that face coverings are a common-sense approach to mitigating its spread.

Like any other virus, the coronavirus is spread through the diffusion of viral particles: when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks or touches an object, the particles are briefly suspended in the air and then settle.

A 3D simulation of how the coronavirus spreads in a grocery store aisle, between shelves, has further reinforced the necessity of wearing a mask in public. The simulation, developed by 30 specialists in virology, biomedical engineering, aerosol physics and fluid dynamics in Finland, tracks how aerosol particles disperse after they’d been coughed out by an infected person – and shows the particles remain in the air for longer than originally thought.

Cover up

Some experts have warned that mask wearers lull themselves into a false sense of security.

Earlier this month, the Centres for Disease Control recommended wearing cloth face coverings in public where physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain (in shops and pharmacies), especially in areas of community-based transmission.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said three-layered cloth face masks should be worn, after evidence showed fabric coverings can lower the virus’s transmission.

He said a fabric face mask was only part of a broader solution to curb the spread of Covid-19 and it must be used in combination with other hygienic methods of prevention.

“Such masks are not a replacement for other recommended precautionary measures. They should not provide a false sense of protection that leads to a lapse in the application of proper preventative measures like personal hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene and physical (social) distancing.

"Furthermore the design of fabric masks should be mindful of the thermo-physiological properties of fabrics which, if wrongly chosen, can lead to problems like skin irritation, the build-up of heat or moisture, or the incubation of bacteria and so on, and may cause wearers to take off masks in situations when they should otherwise be wearing them.”

Food safety expert Dr Lucia Anelich says masks remain a contentious issue.

“Even the World Health Organization has recently published updated guidelines on the use of masks (April 6) in which it stresses that the wide use of masks by healthy people in a community, that is in a non-health care setting, is not supported by current evidence and carries uncertainties and critical risks.”

Anelich, whose consultancy offers downloadable English and isiZulu infographics for food workers on, says WHO has warned wearing non-surgical masks, made from cotton or other fabrics, has not been well evaluated.

“They do concede, though, that in spite of this, decision makers may wish to advise the use of non-medical masks in a non-healthcare setting.

“If this is done, then it is vital that masks are handled and worn in the correct manner so that they do not become a risk in transmission of the virus. In other words, proper mask management is key,” she says.

Training in mask management is essential, to ensure all employees handle and wear them correctly.

Human factor

Matlou Setati, the Consumer Goods Council’s food safety initiative executive, agrees.

As the pandemic evolves and new information becomes available, industry practices are evolving.

But while education is critical in the retail environment, getting buy-in from staff is proving challenging.

“It’s a real problem,” Setati says. “And it’s not helped when we see government officials educating the public but not setting the right example.”

Behaviour change is not an easy process. “No matter how much (staff) are educated, they still make their own decisions and the masks are not always comfortable: we see, for example, when they talk to customers, some lift up their shields.”

Mkhize’s recommendation on cloth masks has helped, she says, because the food sector is guided by hygiene regulations which require appropriate measures to mitigate risks.

“At first, retailers introduced screens at till points. A number introduced face shields. (Two weeks ago) they started introducing face masks, with more and more people starting to adopt the usage of cloth masks.

"Some retailers are now introducing their own branded cloth masks. It’s the new normal.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.

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* For the latest on the Covid-19 outbreak visit IOL's  #Coronavirus trend page

** If you think you have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus, please call the government's 24-hour hotline on 0800 029 999 or go to  SA Coronavirus for more information.

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