Retailers fear a return of the mask wars

Retailers and grocery stores are fearing a resurgence of the mask wars from earlier in the pandemic as Texas and other states start scaling back coronavirus restrictions.

Nationwide chains that have COVID-19 rules in place for both employees and customers are worried about the confusion and conflict that's likely to ensue as some states lift mask mandates for indoor spaces but stores keep them in place.

Industry groups and major companies with operations in Texas are already saying they plan to stick with their own coronavirus mitigation measures and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regardless of changes at the state level.

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“Relaxing common-sense, non-intrusive safety protocols like wearing masks is a mistake,” said Jason Brewer, executive vice president of communications and state affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Going backwards on safety measures will unfairly put retail employees back in the role of enforcing guidelines still recommended by the CDC and other public health advocates.”

In response to states lifting mask mandates, the National Retail Federation (NRF) stressed that businesses have the right to establish and enforce their own policies.

“Retail stores are private entities. If they require you to wear a mask in their stores, and you choose not to, that store can refuse admission or service,” said Bill Thorne, NRF senior vice president of communications and public affairs.

CVS and Target Corp. are among those saying masks are still required for customers and employees nationwide. Target said it doesn’t plan to drop those kinds of requirements even as vaccination distributions increase.

“Those who have been vaccinated for coronavirus are still required to wear a mask and follow all social distancing guidelines, in line with current CDC guidance,” a Target spokesperson said.

Public health officials have warned that vaccine recipients can still be asymptomatic and transmit COVID-19 to others. For that reason, experts recommend wearing a mask after being vaccinated and continuing with other protocols like physical distancing and frequent hand washing.

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) emphasized personal responsibility when announcing this week that they are lifting certain coronavirus restrictions. President BidenJoe BidenHouse clears bill to provide veterans with cost-of-living adjustment On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default To reduce poverty, stop burdening the poor: What Joe Manchin gets wrong about the child tax credit MORE on Wednesday blasted the decisions, saying “the last thing we need is neanderthal thinking” and stressing the importance of masks.

The state announcements came after CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyFDA panel endorses COVID-19 booster shots for older Americans, rejects widespread use Watch live: White House COVID-19 response team holds briefing The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows MORE expressed concern over states lifting restrictions at this stage in the pandemic, as more variants of COVID-19 spread across the country.

The CDC extended its recommendation on masks last month, updating its guidance to note that double masking or wearing a tightly fitted surgical mask can help decrease the spread of COVID-19.

Not all nationwide chains are using CDC guidance to set their policies.

Grocery store Kroger has said it will continue to require masks in its stores, but it’s basing the policy on vaccination efforts.

“The Kroger Family of Companies will continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” a spokesperson said, adding that the company is offering $100 cash payments to employees who receive the vaccine.

The move by Texas and Mississippi also comes on the heels of a renewed effort by the business community to promote mask wearing, along with other mitigation steps.

The Business Roundtable, which advocates for top CEOs across various sectors including many consumer-facing ones, launched a campaign on Friday calling on America’s leading employers to ramp up engagement with employees, suppliers and customers for extended mask wearing, as well as vaccine distribution.

“Through this effort, America’s leading employers are stepping up and leveraging our resources to help ensure successful vaccination around the country,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, BRT’s chairman, said in a statement last week.

Scaling back mask rules at the state level also runs the risk of creating challenges for vaccine distribution, industry groups warn.

Lifting mask mandates “could also jeopardize the safety of pharmacies and grocers that are gearing up as vaccination centers to administer millions of shots in the coming months,” Brewer said on Wednesday.

“Tremendous strides have been made in recent weeks ... and President Biden’s announcement yesterday that every adult will have access to a vaccine by the end of May is great news. We should not jeopardize this progress with a premature victory celebration.”