“Oh, better put our masks on,” a woman said to her friend outside a housewares store in Camberwell, south London, fishing in her bag. He shrugs and follows her inside, choosing to do without.
It’s the first day that face blankets are mandatory for shop customers in England, and most people comply with them on this street. But the exchange sums up the dilemma for some traders.
On one side of the road, a mom brings her two daughters into Lidl – all three dressed in matching masks. On the other, a woman hovers outside a storefront, wondering if she can enter without one.
“Please keep your distance! Reads a sign in the window of Ragini Patel’s stationery shop. She says all she can do is ask customers to cover their faces, but some of the older customers, in particular, aren’t listening. One client was even aggressive when she reminded her of social distancing.
“There’s no point in telling anyone anything, you don’t want to be in trouble,” she shrugs.
A hundred miles away in Birmingham, another customer, Laura, told BBC Radio 5 Live that she visited a branch of the Aldi supermarket this morning where two people were not wearing face coverings.
She didn’t approve. “If there is even a slight possibility that wearing a mask could reduce the rate of infection, it is worth it. It’s not an ordeal, ”she added.
Meanwhile, listener Paul said he was the target of an ‘mask contempt’ this morning in Maidenhead, Berkshire, when he entered Tesco without covering his face after a ride in bike.
He said it was an “honest mistake” but another buyer berated him. “She just went into town on top of me,” Paul said. “I was rightly scolded. ”
Like many shopping areas across the country, stores in the Liverpool One complex have installed signs telling customers to wear masks.
But Susan Green, 57, of Liverpool, said: “I think it’s a bit late to have featured this and a lot of people I’ve seen this morning aren’t even wearing them.
“It won’t deter me from coming to the stores because I’ll be anyway, but it seems a little pointless. ”
Liverpool One also has a new vending machine selling face coatings in a host of styles – and they’ve sprouted to other main streets as well.
Back in Camberwell, at the Scope charity shop, Dawn Suleyman says that only one customer arrived today without covering their face – and was grateful to him for that when she handed him a spare.
She acknowledges that it may not be wise to challenge customers, as there have been instances where staff have been verbally abused for asking shoppers to use the hand sanitizer pump. Leaning over to bang on the counter to her left, she adds, “So far today, tap wood, we’ve had no problem. “
“I wouldn’t say to someone, ‘You can’t come in because you don’t have a mask,’ says Dawn, who is exempt when she goes shopping because she has asthma. “I would explain to them, ‘Do you realize that you could possibly get a fine? And if you don’t have a mask, I’m happy to give you one. ‘ ”
Melanie Wall of the Chloe James store in St Albans says there has been a “big reaction” among customers at her store.
“People are very happy to wear face masks – it sparks conversations and jokes when they walk in… we’re talking about the different styles – it has been very well accepted,” she said.
“We had a lady come up to the front door and said, ‘I don’t have a face mask but I’m here to buy a face mask. She obviously couldn’t get into the store… but I used the door for her, so it was a very fun time. ”
Meanwhile, a buyer in the city told the BBC that she was “really happy” that the rules were in, adding: “It gave us more confidence to come to town. We have avoided it so far. ”
In Leicester – the first city in England to have a local lockdown imposed – new face mask rules came in on the same day some non-essential stores were allowed to reopen.
Callum Goodson, 22, a buyer at the Pilot clothing store in the Lanes shopping area, said customer compliance levels have so far been high.
Mr Goodson said: “Everyone who enters the store wears masks. If someone comes in without a mask, we can give them one.
“If they refuse, it’s up to us to accept it – but we haven’t had to so far. ”
There were also no problems for forgetful shoppers in Bristol, where city council staff had purchased 80,000 masks to hand out in the city’s shopping areas.
In Camberwell, not everyone is so worried about enforcement. In a photo printing shop, the sales assistant says customers have complied. They have a stash of reusable masks they can give away in exchange for a charitable donation, but she doesn’t know what she would do if someone refused. “I’m sure we could politely tell them to put it on,” she said.
In the arcade, a security guard with a face mask stands outside Poundland. Two women peruse the ‘two for £ 5’ stalls at a nearby clothing store – both wearing masks, although the sales clerk is naked, which is acceptable by the rules.
Around the corner of a hardware store, Arjan Patel says some builders walked in without a face covering, but most people complied.
“What can we say? It’s their choice, isn’t it? ” he says. The store needs customers, after all.
“We can’t control it anyway, but maybe a little more diplomacy could help. “