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In stark reversal, masks now encouraged in branches due to coronavirus

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As branches reopen, many credit unions are asking members to wear masks inside branches, creating new security concerns for employees.

Some states and businesses are requiring consumers to wear a face covering while visiting public indoor spaces, including branches, to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a stark change from just a few months ago when it would have been highly unusual and even ill-advised for an institution to allow members to wear a mask inside a branch given the security concerns.

Now credit unions must grapple with keeping members and employees safe from both COVID-19 and potential criminal activity.

“We just simply realized that the virus at this point is such a front of mind issue for people that security is something that we have to deal with,” said Mary Svoboda, interim CEO of Jax Federal Credit Union in Jacksonville, Fla.

In 2018, the number of bank and credit union robberies fell by about 23%, to just over 3,000, from a year earlier, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These events can be traumatic and even violent for those involved. Thirty-four people, including 15 employees, were injured and nine people, eight of them were workers, were taken hostage during robberies, larcenies and burglaries in 2018, according to FBI data.

Active shooters and other forms of violence remain a concern for financial institutions, but the coronavirus has shifted safety priorities as the death toll continues to increase nationwide. More than 108,000 Americans had passed away from the virus as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When the $431 million-asset Jax FCU reopened on May 13, it provided personal protective equipment to both members and employees. But it also implemented a new protocol for checking members in.

Branch staff request members who are wearing masks to temporarily remove their face covering and look into the credit union’s camera for identification and security purposes. After that, the member is allowed to put their mask back on and enter the premises.

Members are encouraged to wear masks that cover just their nose and mouth while full face masks, such as ski masks, and the combination of a mask with a hat or sunglasses are prohibited. However, there are still exceptions, such as allowing head coverings for religious reasons, Svoboda said.

About 60% of members have been wearing masks while visiting branches, though that figure jumps to 85% for members who are seniors. Still, Svoboda said branch traffic is down 30% from pre-COVID-19 levels.

“During the first week we were open we were concerned that someone would take advantage of the ability to wear a mask,” Svoboda said. “So to prepare we overstaffed with our police precinct.”

However, the credit union has since let up on the extra police presence due to the expense and since it had no security issues.

Tropical Financial Credit Union in Miramar, Fla., is requiring all members who enter a branch to wear a mask. Two counties that the credit union serves have required face masks for residents who venture out in public.

Similar to Jax, the $792 million-asset Tropical Financial is also requiring members to temporarily remove masks and look into a camera for security purposes. Additionally, only four members are allowed inside at any given time, which helps to limit risks.

Tropical Financial has ordered branded cloth masks for its staff and will have additional disposable masks on hand for members who may not have their own.

“If members don't want to comply with the [mask] policy, we can’t invite them in,” said Richard Helber, CEO of Tropical Financial. “And that hasn’t been an issue.”

Credit unions should be aware that asking members to even temporarily remove their mask for security reasons could expose that individual to the coronavirus. That concern has to be weighed against the safety of everyone inside the branch.

Cameras and advanced surveillance systems should also be installed throughout branches to help identify any individual who may attempt or commit a crime. Executives might consider installing pinhole cameras at teller stations and within doorways, which would allow for more detailed images and profiles to be securely recorded, said Bob Doyle, a security consultant and former police detective sergeant at Suffolk County Police Department. Strong video quality goes a long way in identifying individuals and completing investigations, he added.

“Currently cameras are often mounted far away from where people are,” Doyle said. “[So] they need to be closer to enable them to more effectively record facial features, eyes and ears for example. This will aid in future identification of suspects.”

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