Companies are rushing to assess their mask policies after a sudden announcement by U.S. officials put newly relaxed federal guidelines in conflict with the rules at many businesses.
Home Depot and TJX said they don’t immediately plan to change their policies advising face coverings be worn inside their stores, while Macy’s, Levi Strauss and Gap said they’re reviewing the new guidance. The National Restaurant Association is also looking at the recommendations and is evaluating its COVID-19 operating guidance and best practices for restaurants, while some banks are indicating they’ll continue to require face coverings — at least for now.
Many companies were caught off-guard Thursday when the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated Americans can largely do away with wearing masks. While formal guidance still recommends masks while flying on planes, riding public transportation and visiting health-care facilities, the change could encourage people to go maskless in stores, restaurants, offices or other crowded places.
The revision creates new challenges for retail workers in particular, many of whom have had to confront uncooperative customers while enforcing mask policies. Many retail and restaurant chains adopted mask requirements for customers in the early stages of the pandemic, and some companies have offered bonuses to front-line workers in acknowledgment of the health and safety risks they have faced.
The CDC’s guidelines are suggestions for behavior, but they don’t have the force of law. Ground-level decisions on when and where masks must be worn will now rest with states, local governments and businesses, who will have to decide whether to maintain or relax their masking mandates, and what mix of carrots and sticks they will use to compel compliance.
While many companies stuck with their mask mandates earlier this year after states such as Texas and Mississippi ended requirements, the nationwide change could make it tougher for companies to have inconsistent rules.
The CDC decree puts retailers in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, said Jim Hertel, a senior vice president at retail industry consultant Inmar Intelligence.
“Unless shoppers are walking around with their vaccination card, you run the risk of alienating people if you have a strict mask-wearing policy,” he said. “On the other hand, if you take everyone at their word, it creates uneasiness on behalf of people who say: ‘Hey, these people have no mask on. How do I know they’ve been vaccinated?’”
On a conference call Thursday, Walt Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek called the CDC announcement “big,” saying he expects an immediate increase in theme park customers — if nothing else because wearing a mask outdoors in the Florida heat is terribly unpleasant.
Fellow amusement-park operator Six Flags Entertainment said it’s reviewing the latest guidance and will “make adjustments to our mask policy as warranted.”
The concern may mitigate as the year progresses and more Americans get vaccinated, he said, but it will make for a “challenging summer.”
Retail workers still need protection, since “they have no way of knowing whether customers who are not wearing masks have been vaccinated,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU. “These workers, many of whom are essential, may be exposed both to the virus and to unnecessary stress. We must encourage customers in high trafficked areas to continue wearing masks.”
PNC Financial Services Group said in a statement that it currently requires customers and employees to socially distance and wear face coverings on its premises regardless of local regulations. It said it would review the new CDC guidance “to determine potential policy changes.”
Meanwhile, Regions Financial . will continue to have employees wear masks in its offices and its branches. It will request customers do the same.