In stores across the country, the masks
are coming off.
Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
's revised guidance last week, an increasing number of grocery and retail
chains are allowing customers to remove their face coverings while inside, as long as local law allows it; in many cases, but not all, they are also allowing their employees to do the same.
Because retailers must still follow local regulations, and some cities and states are keeping their mask mandates in place for the time being, the change from federal health
officials has resulted in a patchwork of different rules from one company to the next, and even between different locations of the same chain.
According to the CDC
's new recommendations, fully vaccinated people
can go without face coverings in most situations, including indoors, while those who have not yet been vaccinated should continue to wear masks.
, the largest grocery conglomerate in the United States
, added itself to the list of retailers that have adopted looser rules on Wednesday, allowing vaccinated customers and most employees to stop wearing masks if they wish. The switch was notable because Kroger includes chains such as Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, and Ralphs, and many of its workers belong to a union that has cr
Kroger said it was updating its policy "based on the CDC's science-based guidance and the input of our associates." Employees in its pharmacies and clinics would continue to wear masks regardless of their vaccination
status, the company said.
As of May 21, the following major retailers no longer required masks for vaccinated customers, though workers in some cases were still required to wear them:
The Dollar General Store
Retailers have spent the last year navigating evolving guidance from federal and local health officials while becoming embroiled in politicized fights over mask usage. If a company wanted to maintain a strict nationwide mask mandate going forward, it would risk backlash from angry shoppers pointing to the CDC's new, more lenient guidance.
According to worker advocates, the new rules put store employees in an awkward and dangerous situation because they have no way of knowing which customers are vaccinated and which are not. Currently, roughly two out of every five adults in the United States are fully vaccinated.
Despite the new CDC guidance, the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, believes that workplaces with close contact should still require masks and social distancing. The group claims that 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.”
Many retail workers have had to deal
with hostile customers who ignored requirements for face coverings and social distancing during the pandemic
, according to the United Food
and Commercial Workers union, and many of those same customers will almost certainly go without masks before being vaccinated, the union said on Thursday.
“Keeping retail mask rules in place for the vast majority of people will help us protect each other and our families,” the union’s president, Marc Perrone, said in a statement.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky
, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified in front of lawmakers on Capitol
Hill this week and defended the agency's new guidance.
“The country is not uniform,” Walensky explained on Wednesday, “and you really do need to interpret our guidance in the context of what is happening in your community.”
Many workplaces are still reluctant to eliminate 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.
“We understand that wearing masks can be uncomfortable, but we respectfully request that everyone comply,” the UAW said in a statement.
, which is part of the Labor Department
, has been developing an emergency temporary standard for coronavirus
that employers would be required to follow under threat of fine; however, the standard has not yet been issued and is being reviewed at the White House
, despite the Biden administration
's initial suggestion that one would be implemented by mid-March.
Most safety and health experts assumed the standard would include a mask requirement, but the CDC's new recommendations have thrown that expectation into disarray; if OSHA attempted to implement a workplace mask mandate now, it would be in conflict with guidance issued by another federal agency.
have criticized the CDC guidance, as well as the delay of an OSHA standard. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), 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 with no end in sight.”
Scott believes that making coronavirus workplace safety guidelines voluntary rather than mandatory was a mistake.
“One clear lesson learned over the last 16 months is that the honor system does not protect workers from COVID-19
infections,” he said.