People wearing face masks wait in line shop.

As America muddles through the coronavirus pandemic with a patchwork of local safety regulations and a start-and-stop reopening, the calls for a single standard on face masks are growing louder. 

The American Apparel & Footwear Association sent a letter to President Trump asking for federal face mask guidelines to help stores operate safely.

Last week, a number of groups, including the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called on Trump to “develop model mandatory mask policies that are simple and do not impose the enforcement burden on organizations without such expertise, such as businesses.”

Face masks are widely seen as a key tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“The best approach starts with a national standard, the best way to get a national standard is starting at the top and that’s why we went to the President,” said Stephen Lamar, president and chief executive officer of the AAFA. 

Lamar stuck to policy and procedures in an interview — not politics. But for many, the standard bit of medical safety has become a partisan issue. And Trump, who has avoided being seen in a face mask, has not been as enthusiastic about widespread mask usage as many medical experts would prefer. 

In a Fox News interview on Thursday, Trump said he planned to wear a mask while visiting soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. 

“I think it’s fine to wear a mask if it makes you feel comfortable,” Trump said. “I expect to be wearing a mask when I go to Walter Reed. You’re in a hospital setting, I think it’s a very appropriate thing….I have no problems with masks. It’s up to you.”

But business groups are asking for something a little less than “up to you,” hoping that a standard approach that encourages masks will help slow the pandemic and make it easier to operate stores.

“If we do not require widespread use of face masks in enclosed public spaces, we will likely endure additional widespread business shutdowns,” the AAFA’s Lamar said in the letter to Trump. 

“As we work to save lives and livelihoods, the choice is clear,” he said. “We are therefore writing to support the quick development and publication of national face mask usage standards to promote widespread face mask wearing in enclosed public spaces to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and sustain a safe restart for our economy. Such usage standards, while based on medical guidance and promulgated nationally to avoid confusion, must be enforced locally.”

Versions of the letter were also sent to the National Governors Association, National Association of Counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The AAFA also separately asked the Department of Homeland Security’s  Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to update its Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce advisory to include “facilities that practice safe reopen protocols.”

Lamar added in a statement: “As long as our members continue to follow proper safety protocols, they should be allowed to stay open. Many apparel, footwear and accessory stores now sell masks, face coverings and other items of personal protective equipment. Just as important, those stores also sell products that meet a wide variety of other consumer needs — such as affordable back-to-school clothes, shoes and backpacks for growing children or cold-weather articles and boots — especially as winter approaches.”  

Store associates find themselves on the front lines of the pandemic as their public-facing jobs bring them in contact with more people who might be contagious, even if they lack symptoms. 

Lamar used that point in his appeal to Trump. 

“Unfortunately, the lack of a national face mask usage standard — combined with conflicting messaging and unevenly enforced local requirements regarding face masks — make those front lines tenuous and stymies our collective efforts to stop COVID-19,” he said. “Mr. President, we want to return to work, we want to stay at work, and we want to do so in a safe manner. Your leadership is critical in ensuring we can sustain a recovery that can return our citizens and our economy to full health.”

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