An incident where a Whangārei Re:Sort worker was spat on by a man refusing to wear a mask has highlighted the experience of employees turned enforcers.
Local business leaders say while it's an unfair situation, fortunately,it's rare, as most Northlanders have adhered to the alert level 2 restrictions.
A Re:Sort Centre employee had to undergo a Covid test after confronting a 26-year-old man who reportedly refused to wear a mask on site last Wednesday.
Masks will be essential in Northland until the region returns to alert level 1. And that won't be any time soon, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing yesterday
that Auckland would move to alert level 3 at 11.59pm tonight
for atleast two weeks.
A decision on whether to move further down alert levels would be made on October 4.
But the rules would be changed to allow a maximum of 100 people to gather, including at hospitality venues, which is good news for Northland's hospitality industry.
The move came after there were 22 new Covid cases in the community yesterday.
Ardern said high vaccination rates would undoubtedly be a game changer. "But the key word there is 'high'."
She said director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield was aiming for 90 per cent plus: "that's the range we want to see people aspiring to. That's the level where we might have fewer restrictions."
Under alert level 2, people visiting any of Northland's Re:Sort Centres must scan in, socially distance (2m), and are legally required to wear a face covering.
The staff member reportedly asked the man to leave the facility after he refused to wear a mask when requested.
According to police, he then allegedly spat on the worker's face.
He appeared in the Whangārei District Court on Monday charged with common assault, and a Covid breach for refusing to wear a mask where one was legally required.
Both carry a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment and a $4000 fine.
The man will next appear on October 4.
NorthChamber chief executive Steve Smith said the stress of Covid restrictions had caused some people to react outside of their "normal character" – with employees bearing the brunt.
"The problem is these staff members are being forced into a position of being part of enforcement because of the circumstances, which isn't their role.
"Sometimes they can get themselves into a situation that a highly trained professional probably could have avoided."
Smith had only heard anecdotal accounts from business owners about issues with mask-wearing non-compliance.
According to Government guidelines, businesses – where face masks are not legally required – can choose to make the health precaution mandatory at their premises.
However, they urged businesses to consider how they can keep staff "healthy" and "safe" if a person becomes angry when a worker encourages them to wear a mask.
Smith said it was a "very, very difficult" situation for employees to enforce the rules when a person wasn't aware of their behaviour.
"In the heat of the moment, it isn't going to happen. People need specific training."
He thought enforcement worked best when others respected the rules.
Kaitaia Business Association chairwoman Andrea Panther said business had a "mostly positive" experience with compliance in the Far North.
She said business owners were doing well to adjust to the new normal with contact tracing, PPE, masks, social distancing – "it goes on and on".
Minus a few well-publicised incidents of people arrested after they refused to wear masks in essential businesses, such as Pak'n'Save Kaitaia and a Kaitaia service station.
"People want to comply because they're desperate to have their doors open," Panther said.
Larger businesses potentially had a harder time with compliance than smaller ones, Panther said.
"Small business owners are usually fronting it, so it's OK. Whereas at slightly bigger ones you have staff on the frontline now in a policing capacity that they were never employed for in the first place."
Panther said flexible online training, focused on managing enforcement scenarios, would benefit employees – and be more cost-effective and accessible for businesses and their staff.
Paper Plus Whangārei owner Barry Wienand said they'd had no issues with mask-wearing non-compliance despite their post office and Lotto store being flat out with customers.
People must wear a face mask in order to enter the store, he said.
"We've been given guidelines through New Zealand Post and Paper Plus, and we've made it perfectly clear what the rules are," he said.
Staff at Unichem Pharmacy in downtown Whangārei also reported a high level of compliance.
Amy Walford, shop assistant at Whangārei clothing and homeware store eKo, had so far avoided any "bad experiences" with compliance.
"Sometimes you have to remind people about the rules but there's no malice, they've genuinely just forgotten," she said.
Professor Jamin Halberstadt, Otago University head of psychology, said as the mask-wearing mandates wore on people were potentially giving more weight to their feelings about it.
"I would think people are trading off physical and psychological discomfort against what they know the experts are recommending, social pressure, and their desire to follow the law."
He said witnessing other countries stop certain Covid restrictions potentially meant Kiwis had started to question whether they're necessary or not.
"People respond a lot more when things are visible and on your mind...it's always difficult when things are invisible, as it's hard to quanitfy."
Halberstadt said it was important to acknowledge that not everyone was happy about mask-wearing but "as a society and culture we've decided to trust the Government and expert advice".