Banks alter security policies to let customers wear masks

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As branches reopen, many banks and credit unions will ask customers to wear masks, adding a layer of health safety while creating potential security concerns.

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 coronavirus. It’s a stark change from a few months ago when it was highly unusual — even ill-advised — to let customers cover their faces inside a branch.

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

“We just have to do everything we can to follow [federal] guidelines and to try to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Patrick Gerhart, president of First Newman Grove Bankshares in Nebraska.

The $32.7 million-asset banking company aims to reopen its lobbies in late June or July. Branches will include Plexiglas shields at teller stations, more hand sanitizer dispensers, social distancing signs and mask requirements for employees and customers.

Nebraska, which has several meatpacking plants, has been relatively hard hit by the pandemic. There were more than 15,600 cases in the state as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Masks “add possible complications,” Gerhart said. “But we can’t gamble with the health of our staff or customers. There’s just still so much we don’t know about this disease that we have to be cautious.”

“It’s definitely a concern,” said Matthew Deines, president and CEO of First Northwest Bancorp in Port Angeles, Wash.

The $1.4 billion-asset First Northwest’s bank opened its lobbies with limited hours after Memorial Day weekend. Because of a new order from Washington’s governor, the company is requiring employees to wear masks and asking customers to do the same.

First Northwest has stationed employees at branch entrances to ask for passwords and other information to verify the identities of masked customers. While the practice is working now, Deines noted that branch traffic remains relatively light.

“Obviously, there’s the potential for someone to take advantage of this, but we really do have to focus on health and safety as it relates to this virus,” Deines said.

Washington, the first state to experience a coronavirus outbreak, has reported nearly 24,000 cases, according to Johns Hopkins.

The challenge comes at a time when robberies seem to be declining.

In 2018, the most recent year for federal data, the number of bank and credit union robberies fell by about 23% from a year earlier, to roughly 3,000, according to the FBI. Thirty-four people, including 15 employees, were injured and nine people, eight of them workers, were taken hostage during robberies, larcenies and burglaries in 2018.

Still, in a letter to mayors and governors earlier this month, acting Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks noted “the very real risk of increases in bank robberies” because of a proliferation of face masks.

Coronavirus has proved more deadly, killing more than 108,000 Americans as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“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.

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

Branch staff request that members with masks temporarily remove their covering and look into the credit union’s camera for identification and security. 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 a combination of a mask with a hat or sunglasses are prohibited. There are 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. Svoboda said branch traffic is down 30% from pre-coronavirus 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. “To prepare we overstaffed with our police precinct.”

The credit union has since let up on the extra police presence because of the expense and since it had no security issues.

Tropical Financial Credit Union in Miramar, Fla., requires 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.

The $792 million-asset Tropical Financial also requires members to temporarily remove masks and look into a camera. Only four members are allowed inside at any given time, which helps limit risk.

Tropical Financial ordered branded cloth masks for its staff and will have more 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, Tropical Financial’s CEO. “That hasn’t been an issue.”

Branch managers and staff should be aware that asking members to remove their mask for security reasons, even temporarily, could expose that individual to 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 individuals who may attempt or commit a crime, industry experts say.

Executives might consider installing pinhole cameras at teller stations and within doorways to allow for more detailed images and profiles to be securely recorded, said Bob Doyle, a security consultant and former police detective sergeant with the Suffolk County (New York) Police Department. Strong video quality goes a long way in identifying individuals and completing investigations.

“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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