As several U.S. states begin to lift safety mandates amid a health crisis that has yet to subside, some of the country’s biggest retailers have decided to stick with face mask requirements at least for now.
Target, Macy’s, and Kroger are among the stores that will continue to require face coverings as chains navigate sometimes contradictory local, state and federal directives simultaneously. Costco also is sticking with its mask-required policy in Texas, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Several chains have said they plan to keep their guidelines in accordance with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The decisions come after Texas Governor Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask requirement and said all businesses can open at full capacity beginning March 10, defying health officials who say safety measures shouldn’t be ended too early. Mississippi also lifted its mask mandate, joining several earlier states including Montana.
The move by Texas, one of the most populous states in the country, raises thorny issues for retailers, whose frontline workers have faced health risks for the past year while interacting with customers.
“Relaxing common-sense, non-intrusive safety protocols like wearing masks is a mistake,” said Jason Brewer, a spokesperson for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, an industry trade group. Store workers may be put in an uncomfortable position of having to enforce federally supported policies that conflict with state guidance, he added. “Requiring masks for a few more weeks is still the prudent course of action.”
Since malls and stores began to reopen after the shutdown in the U.S. last spring, security guards and retail staff have faced verbal threats and violence when trying to enforce COVID-19 safety measures. Incidents over face coverings have piled up across the country, and there’s been at least one death over mask enforcement when a guard was shot and killed in a dispute at a Family Dollar in Flint, Michigan, last year.
These frontline workers also have to deal with the danger of the virus itself, which is killing guards at some of the highest rates of any job. The U.S. doesn’t track such data on professions, but the U.K. does. Its Office for National Statistics found that male security guards have had 100.7 deaths per 100,000 workers recorded from March to December of 2020, a rate more than three times the national average for all jobs.
Confusion over mask policies may worsen for shoppers as restrictions ease and lead to more incidents. Mask policies differ from state to state and within counties, cities and all the way down to the shopping-center level. For instance, a mall may not require masks but many stores within it might.
Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s and Ulta said they would maintain their mask guidelines in accordance with the CDC. Similarly, Macy’s said it had no plans to change its policy.
Kroger, which owns supermarket chains including Ralphs, Dillons and its namesake brand, as well as the Pacific Northwest’s QFC and Fred Meyer chains, said in a statement that it will “require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.” The company has 209 stores in Texas and another 31 in Mississippi.
HEB Grocery, a San Antonio retailer with more than 400 stores across Texas and Mexico, will be less stringent, and will encourage but not require customers to mask up. Employees and vendors will continue donning masks until vaccines are more widely available, the company said in a statement.
“Most retailers are going to continue to require all their employees and vendors to wear masks and socially distance and continue those best practices,” said George Kelemen, chief executive officer of the Texas Retailers Association. “They want to make sure they protect their employees and make sure they continue to stay open.”
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