WINNIPEG -- A union representing thousands of retail grocery store workers in Manitoba is calling on large retail grocery store chains, and the province, to mandate that all customers must wear a mask while shopping.

“We’ve had literally hundreds of workers in retail grocery contract COVID-19,” said Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832.

The union sent an open letter to several large retail grocery stores, specifically Sobeys, Loblaws, and Red River Co-op, calling on them to enforce a “no mask, no service” policy at all stores.

Traeger says union members, which account for roughly 9,000 grocery store employees in the province, have reported numerous instances of customers not wearing masks inside grocery stores.

“Our members are feeling very frustrated and very frightened” particularly in light of the spread of new COVID-19 variants in Manitoba, said Traeger.

UFCW Local 832 is also calling on the province to mandate that customers must wear a mask when in an indoor retail setting.

When asked for a statement, the province pointed to subsection 27(1) in the current COVID-19 health orders, which states, “A person who enters or remains in an indoor public place must wear a mask in a manner that covers their mouth, nose and chin without gapping.”

The following subsection, 27(2), adds that “the operator of an indoor public place must ensure that every person who is not wearing a mask while in the indoor public place is given a reminder to do so as soon as practicable.

Traeger says that, once a grocery store reminds a customer to wear a mask, they are absolved from any responsibility, even if the customer refuses.

“There’s no incentive through the public health orders for grocery stores to force a mask policy,” he said, “We believe it’s the right thing to do.”

At a large grocery store in Winnipeg, says Traeger, 25-30 customers may come in and shop without a mask, adding that number is higher in Steinbach, Carman, and Winkler.

John Graham, the Retail Council of Canada’s director of government relations for the Prairie region, has also heard of the issue of mask-less customers in southern parts of Manitoba.

"We know that there are situations where employees are put in harm’s way because they've tried to enforce mandatory mask requirements," said Graham.

Provincial enforcement of public health orders is the best method of ensuring compliance, says Graham.

“If you want to put a 16-year-old part-time retailer in a situation of taking on a large adult who is determined to not wear a mask, that creates escalated risk,” he said.

In a statement to CTV News, Sobeys Inc. said, “We work closely with our stores to ensure all regulatory safety practices and all additional safety practices we have instituted are strictly adhered to. We strongly recommend every customer in our store wears a mask and we continue to uphold and adhere to the Province of Manitoba’s directive surrounding masking.”

A spokesperson for Loblaws Inc. also provided a statement saying, “The government requires that masks be worn in all indoor public places unless there is a valid exemption, and our stores legally and happily comply. We expect our customers to do the same.”

CTV News has not heard back from Red River Co-op.

Meanwhile, an independent grocery store in downtown Winnipeg has been requiring all customers to wear a mask when shopping ever since the province included the use of masks indoors in its public health orders.

Co-owner Kevin Schmidt says most customers have been compliant.

“We did have one person who kind of refused to do that,” said Schmidt, “We just said, ‘we apologize but our policy here is that you have to wear a mask.’”

Schmidt says having a strict mask policy is a question of safety for workers and customers alike.

“I think the big box stores, they should step up and enforce these policies to make people feel safe.”