Face masks are mandatory at Walmart, Target and a growing number of retailers. President Donald Trump, who long resisted being photographed in a mask, now encourages the public to wear them and said he carries one with him.
But for U.S. banks, widespread adoption has been trickier. The small pieces of cloth public-health officials consider one of the best defenses against the growing coronavirus threat could double as a handy disguise for would-be bank robbers, they worry.
Face-mask requirements “create the very real risk of increases in bank robberies,” a top financial regulator said recently.
Banks generally prohibit customers entering their branches from wearing items that could shield their identities. No hoodies or sunglasses. Masks have been a big no-no.
“Wearing a mask at any businesses, especially a bank, just a few months ago would have raised a lot of eyebrows,” said Richard Hunt, president of the Consumer Banks Association.
But the American Bankers Association, the industry’s largest lobbying group, said Monday it was “urging” its members to require customers wear face masks. “We owe it to front-line bank staff to prioritize their safety and to contribute to the wider effort to limit the spread of this infection,” said Rob Nichols, the group’s president and chief executive.
Relaxing prohibitions against face masks initially made sense, Brian Brooks, the acting Comptroller of the Currency, said in a letter to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last month. “That may have been a prudent decision when the extent of the health risk was still unknown,” he said.
But it’s not sustainable, he said. “Lengthy and potentially permanent requirements that individuals wear face masks in many or even all public spaces create the very real risk of increases in bank robberies,” he said.
There have already been “recent reports of face-covering-related robberies at bank branches … that make clear that broadly applicable face mask requirements are not safe or sustainable on a permanent basis,” he said.
In one case a man walked into a Houston bank with a bandanna covering his face and handed a teller a note: “I didn’t get a stimulus or that 10k loan. I lost my business to Covid so please make this easy and comply.”
Another would-be robber in Florida entered a Wells Fargo branch wearing sunglasses, gloves and a white cone-like mask over his face. He approached a teller’s window demanding money, according to the arrest warrant.
But the bank employee had trouble hearing the robber’s demands through the mask. “The male got upset and repeated himself several times” and eventually left empty-handed, according to the arrest warrant.
“It appears the suspect was taking advantage of the COVID-19 protocols in wearing a mask to conceal his identity to commit crimes,” the warrant said.
Despite the robbery attempt, Wells Fargo began requiring customers to wear masks July 13. They are also required by Bank of America.
JPMorgan Chase said its employees are required to wear masks but they would comply with local ordinances when it comes to their customers. The bank says it is continuing to review its policies.
Of course, the threat of bank robberies has been fading for years as video surveillance inside and outside branches became common. There were 2,735 bank robberies in 2018, down from 7,043 in 2004, according to FBI statistics. Bank robberies are at their lowest level in three decades, according to the American Bankers Association.
More threatening for banking officials is not the would-be robber barging in their doors but the anonymous hacker sifting through their computer networks.
“There is a lot more risk now in robbing a bank,” said Jerry Clark, a former FBI agent and now an associate professor of criminal justice at Gannon University in Erie, Pa. “You take a lot less risk through the internet and defrauding online.”
But face masks could prove problematic, he said. “It does provide opportunity that would be a little bit concerning to me,” said Clark.
In the meantime, many bank branches remain closed. In the ones that are open, customers are often asked to make an appointment or use a drive-through window. Banks are also widely promoting online banking options and their mobile phone apps.
“We have seen a significant increase in online banking across the country, but we realize some customers occasionally need to visit a branch and some prefer it,” Paul Benda, who oversaw a Pentagon program to defend against chemical and biological weapons and is now leading risk management at the American Bankers Association.
Part of the problem for banks is while customers can walk into a store and buy groceries or clothes anonymously, banking transaction fall under extensive regulatory scrutiny. Banks are required to know who they are doing business with and verify their identity.
The Independent Community Bankers of America said it is encouraging members to provide masks for employees and customers. It’s a “risk-based decision,” said Steven Estep, director of operational risk at the trade group.
Even when required to wear a mask, customers could be asked to remove them long enough to be identified, he said.