New guidance on mask-wearing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week once again complicated the business of running a store during the pandemic.
The health agency on Thursday released a notice stating that "fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting," taking federal, state and local officials by surprise and creating confusion over the weekend for store customers and employees. Even the Biden administration was unaware of the shift until after the CDC's announcement.
The government's announcement sparked an immediate outcry from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which said it was concerned that the CDC's updated mask guidance would leave workers at risk given that they will need to deal with people who are not vaccinated but refuse to cover their faces.
"Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?" UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement released by the labor organization on Thursday.
The National Retail Federation, however, hailed the updated mask guidance from the federal government as helping "to open the economy and get more people back to work."
"Retailers' biggest priority is protecting the health and safety of their customers, colleagues and communities," the group also said. "Retailers will continue to follow coronavirus-related laws and regulations governing store operations in each state."
Retailers including Walmart, Publix, Hy-Vee, Target, Aldi and Costco, reacted to the CDC's announcement with new policies eliminating their in-store mask requirements for fully vaccinated staff and customers except in stores located where a state or local ordinance makes wearing a mask compulsory.
In announcing its updated mask policy on Tuesday, Hy-Vee said that it "has consistently followed the CDC’s recommendations as guidance is provided." Target said in its statement on Monday that while it has stopped requiring vaccinated people to wear masks in its stores, it will maintain the stepped-up cleaning measures and social distancing protocols that have been in place throughout much of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Walmart cast its decision as an incentive for people to get vaccinated. The retailer noted that it is offering associates who get vaccinated a $75 bonus and added that it "will continue to request that non-vaccinated customers and members wear face coverings in our stores and clubs."
While some retailers have dropped the mask requirements that quickly took hold last summer as the pandemic picked up steam, others have, so far, left their policies in place. For example, H-E-B's face mask requirement, which it underscored in March, has not changed, KHOU reported. Kroger, meanwhile, continues to require masks in its stores, according to WREG, and Albertsons's website continues to say that face masks are required in all of the chain's stores.
Meanwhile, Sprouts Farmers Market said that, as of May 12, "we strongly encourage non-vaccinated people over the age of 2 without disabilities or underlying medical conditions to wear face coverings while inside our stores."
The Food Industry Association (FMI) said in an emailed statement that it supports the safety guidelines issued by the CDC, noting that the "safety of our workforce and customers remains a top priority... FMI has always upheld CDC guidelines, and universal masking and social distancing are two prevention strategies recommended by CDC to slow the spread of the virus,” the organization said.
The National Grocers Association (NGA), which represents independent retailers, also said it stands by the CDC. "This is an evolving issue, but we expect our members to continue following all federal, state and local requirements for masking and social distancing until they are withdrawn, since the CDC noted that people should still wear masks where required by laws, rules and regulations," the NGA wrote in an email.