Retailers face tough decision on requiring masks again

Retailers face tough decision on requiring masks again
© ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Retailers are considering reimposing facial coverings for customers following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), setting the stage for a return to the mask wars that defined much of the pandemic until just a couple of months ago.

The CDC’s recommendation that vaccinated people in areas with high COVID-19 spread to wear masks indoors means nationwide chains now have a decision on their hands.

Most nationwide chains previously crafted their mask rules around the CDC’s guidance, but many of those same companies were quiet on the subject Wednesday, a day after the CDC announced its updated guidance.

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However, industry groups indicated that mask mandates could very well return.

Retail Industry Leaders Association President Brian Dodge said in a statement that “masks may be necessary again in some circumstances” as CDC guidance evolves and the delta variant spreads.

“We ask customers to be mindful of the guidance provided by local retailers, and that they respect employees and their fellow customers who may continue to wear masks for the safety of themselves and their family,” he said.

The National Retail Federation said stores “will continue to follow the guidance of the CDC and other public health experts” in a statement following the CDC’s announcement.

Most of the nation’s largest retailers, including Walmart, Target and Whole Foods, did not respond to requests for comment about whether they will change their mask policies. As of Wednesday afternoon, the companies’ websites said they allow vaccinated customers to shop without a mask.

Retailers were quicker to react to the CDC’s guidance in mid-May that lifted the mask mandate for vaccinated customers. On the same day as the CDC announcement, Costco, Walmart, Sam’s Club and Trader Joe’s changed their mask policies to match the new guidance. Their sluggish response to the new guidance suggests that it creates a more complicated decision.

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A spokesperson for Publix said the company is reviewing the CDC guidance and will provide updates on its policies as appropriate. The supermarket chain has more than 1,200 stores in Southeastern states, which are plagued by a surge in COVID-19 cases and low vaccination rates.

Tech giant Apple was an outlier Wednesday when it told retail staff that masks would be required at most stores for all customers, Bloomberg reported, making it the first major company to change its mask policy following the new CDC guidance.

United Food and Commercial Workers International President Marc Perrone on Tuesday called for a nationwide mask mandate to force businesses’ hands, arguing that the CDC guidance doesn’t go far enough.

“A national mask mandate is the only way we can finally take control of this virus and every retail CEO in the country must recognize that now is the time for all of us to mask up so we can keep our economy open and communities safe,” he said in a statement.

The food workers union said it has lost nearly 900 of its members to COVID-19. Perrone said essential workers “have been forced to play vaccination police because of the confusing patchwork of state and local mask policies.”

But retailers don’t believe a nationwide mask mandate is coming any time soon, and the Biden administration has not indicated any support for such a move.

Jason Brewer, vice president of communications and state affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said retailers in areas that fall under the CDC’s guidance are discussing new mask restrictions and are ready to comply with any state mandates that may emerge.

“Obviously conversations are happening in places where there are high rates of transmission, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of priority No. 1, and that is encouraging people to get vaccinated,” he said.

Major retailers have led high-profile campaigns to encourage workers and employees to get vaccinated. They don’t want confusion over mask rules to dominate the conversation while half of the U.S. population remains unvaccinated.

States with low vaccination rates are being hit the hardest by the highly transmissible delta variant. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciWatch live: White House COVID-19 response team holds briefing Intercept reporters discuss gain-of-function research The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - DC prepares for Saturday of festivals & Jan. 6 demonstration MORE, President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE’s chief medical adviser, said earlier this month that more than 99 percent of the people who died from COVID-19 in June were not vaccinated.

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 on Tuesday noted that vaccines are hugely effective in preventing infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, including the delta variant. However, she said new data showed that vaccinated individuals who do contract the delta variant have just as much viral load as the unvaccinated, meaning they could infect others.

"We're seeing now that it's actually possible if you're a rare breakthrough infection that you can transmit further, which is the reason for the change," Walensky told reporters.

The CDC’s guidance recommends indoor mask usage in areas with "substantial" or "high" levels of transmission. Roughly 63 percent of U.S. counties fall under that category, according to CDC data. All of the counties in Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida are considered high risk.

It’s unclear which retailers will mandate masks for customers in those areas or if some chains will extend mask requirements to all of their stores.

State and local governments are already bringing back mask rules for businesses. Nevada Gov. Steve SisolakSteve SisolakFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - US speeds evacuations as thousands of Americans remain in Afghanistan Nevada governor says events requiring vaccinations don't need masks MORE (D) on Wednesday reimposed a mask mandate for public indoor spaces in high transmission areas.

Kansas City, Mo., reinstated an indoor mask mandate Wednesday morning following the CDC’s recommendation. Savannah, Ga., reinstated its mask mandate on Monday amid a surge in new COVID-19 cases.