The masks are coming off in stores around the country.
Following last week’s revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more and more grocery and retail chains are allowing customers to ditch their face coverings while inside, as long as local law allows it. In many but not all cases, they are offering their employees the same option.
The change from federal health officials has led to a patchwork of different rules from one company to the next, and even at different locations of the same chain. That’s because retailers still must abide by local regulations, and some cities and states are keeping their mask mandates in place for the time being.
The CDC’s new guidance says that fully vaccinated people can go without face coverings in most situations, including inside, while those who are still not vaccinated should continue masking up.
Grocery giant Kroger on Wednesday added itself to the list of retailers that have adopted looser rules, allowing vaccinated shoppers and most employees to stop wearing masks if they choose to. The switch was notable because Kroger is the largest grocery conglomerate in the U.S. ― it includes chains such as Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter and Ralphs ― and many of its workers belong to a union that has criticized the relaxed guidelines.
Kroger said it was updating its policy “based on the CDC’s science-based guidance and the input of our associates.” The company said employees in its pharmacies and clinics would have to keep wearing masks regardless of their vaccination status.
The following major retailers have all dropped their mask requirements for vaccinated customers as of May 21, though in some cases workers must continue wearing them:
Retailers have spent the last year trying to navigate evolving guidance from federal and local health officials while getting roped into politicized fights over mask usage. If a company wanted to maintain a strict nationwide mask mandate moving forward, it would risk backlash from angry shoppers pointing to the CDC’s new, more lenient guidance.
Worker advocates have said the new rules put store employees in an awkward and unsafe position, since they have no way of knowing which customers are vaccinated and which are not. So far, around two out of five U.S. adults are fully vaccinated.
The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, said workplaces where employees are in close contact should still require masks and social distancing, despite the new CDC guidance. The group said the new recommendations from federal officials have “created confusion in the workplace, leaving the nation’s most vulnerable workers, such as those in meatpacking, poultry, and retail, unprotected.”
During the pandemic, many retail workers have had to deal with hostile shoppers who ignored requirements on face coverings and social distancing. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said many of those same customers will surely go without masks before they are vaccinated. On Thursday, the union asked retailers to “assure customers that the vast majority of people in their stores will still be masked.”
“Keeping retail mask rules in place for most people will help us protect each other and our families,” Marc Perrone, the union’s president, said in a statement.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky defended the agency’s new guidance while testifying before lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week.
“The country is not uniform,” Walensky said Wednesday. “You really do need to interpret our guidance in the context of what is happening in your community.”
Many workplaces are not ready to get rid of their mask requirements for vaccinated employees. In consultation with the United Auto Workers union, the Big Three automakers of Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have decided to keep their mask mandates in place at their factories until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration addresses the CDC’s new guidance. Industrial workplaces do not have to contend with the same customer dynamic that retailers do.
“We know that masks can be uncomfortable, but we ask that everyone comply,” the UAW said in a statement.
OSHA, which is part of the Labor Department, has been developing an emergency temporary standard for coronavirus that employers would be obligated to follow, under threat of fine. The standard has not been issued yet and is sitting at the White House under review, even though the Biden administration originally suggested it would implement one by mid-March.
Most safety health experts assumed the standard would include a mask requirement, but the new recommendations from the CDC have scrambled that expectation. If OSHA tried to move ahead with a workplace mask mandate now, it would conflict with the guidance just issued by a different federal agency.
The CDC guidance, paired with the delay of an OSHA standard, has drawn criticism from Democrats. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said in a statement that the White House was ”dragging its feet on a review process that has no end in sight.”
Scott said it was a mistake to leave workplace safety guidelines for coronavirus voluntary rather than mandatory.
“One clear lesson from the last 16 months is that the honor system does not protect workers from COVID-19 infections,” he said.
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