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Kroger_store_checkout_lane-COVID.jpg The Kroger Co.
The Kroger Co. said it's updating its mask policy 'in a way that balances our values of safety and respect.' The company is encouraging non-vaccinated workers and shoppers to continue wearing masks.

Kroger, Hy-Vee, Publix join retailers relaxing face mask policies

Grocery chains cite updated CDC guidance for fully vaccinated people

The Kroger Co., Hy-Vee and Publix Super Markets are among the growing list of retailers no longer requiring face coverings for shoppers fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket operator, said Wednesday that starting tomorrow customers and employees who have completed coronavirus vaccinations — two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — won’t need to wear a mask in its facilities, including stores, distribution centers, plants and offices, unless otherwise required by state or local jurisdiction.

The Cincinnati-based grocer noted that its policy change comes in the wake of new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which on May 13 said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance, except where required by federal, state, local or municipal law and local business and workplace guidance. A May 16 update from the CDC noted that the new guidance focuses on people vaccinated against COVID-19, and those not immunized should continue to wear masks and follow other precautions.

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“We have adhered to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and our Chief Medical Officer Dr. Marc Watkins and listened to our associates and customers to guide our policies,” Kroger said in a statement on the mask policy update. “Last week, the CDC issued new guidance for individuals who have been fully vaccinated. We have received feedback from and heard the valued opinions of thousands of associates regarding the CDC’s announcement. Based on the CDC’s science-based guidance and the input of our associates, we are updating our mask policy in a way that balances our values of safety and respect.”

Kroger said non-vaccinated associates will be required to wear a mask, as will associates in its pharmacies and clinics, in line with CDC guidance for health care settings. The company also urged unvaccinated shoppers to continue using face coverings.

“We request that non-vaccinated customers continue to wear a mask,” Kroger stated. “And we will continue to respect the choice of individuals who prefer to continue to wear a mask.”

West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee began relaxing its face covering requirement yesterday in accordance with the CDC’s new guidelines. The Midwestern grocer noted that it “has consistently followed the CDC’s recommendations” as new guidance was released.

“Given the CDC’s mask announcement on Friday, starting today, Hy-Vee no longer requires fully vaccinated customers and employees to wear face coverings in its stores, except where it’s required by local ordinances,” Hy-Vee said in a statement on Tuesday. “Face coverings, however, continue to be strongly recommended for Hy-Vee customers who are not fully vaccinated and are still required by the company for employees who are not fully vaccinated.”

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Both Kroger and Hy-Vee said they will maintain the extra cleaning, sanitization, safety and social distancing practices that have been in place since the early days of the pandemic.

“Every step of the way, our most urgent priority has been the health and safety of our associates and customers, and we have consistently leveraged expert guidance and associate and customer feedback to guide our decisions,” Kroger’s Watkins commented. “That focus continues today as we look ahead to a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Publix instituted its new face mask policy on May 15, shortly after the CDC unveiled its updated guidance. The Lakeland, Fla.-based supermarket chain, which operates 1,270 stores in seven Southeastern states, said it will no longer require fully vaccinated associates or shoppers to wear face coverings, unless mandated by a state or local order or ordinance.

“In accordance with CDC guidelines, individuals who are not fully vaccinated are required to use face coverings over their noses and mouths while inside any Publix store,” Publix stated.

Other food, drug and mass retailers dropping the face mask requirement for customers with full COVID vaccinations — or planning to do so — include Walmart and Sam’s Club, Costco Wholesale, Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, Target, Aldi U.S. and BJ’s Wholesale Club, among retail chains in other sectors. Lidl US, ShopRite, Stew Leonard's, Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace and Whole Foods Market also aren't requiring face coverings, in line with the CDC's guidelines, Newsday reported.

Still, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) said late Wednesday that retailers and other businesses may be jumping the gun in easing their face masks requirements, noting that millions of people haven’t received a COVID-19 vaccine.

“UFCW is strongly urging retailers not to add to the confusion and to assure customers that the vast majority of people in their stores will still be masked. Keeping retail mask rules in place for most people will help us protect each other and our families. Before the new CDC mask guidance, we knew that unmasked shoppers were ignoring COVID safety measures and likely unvaccinated, so we knew to keep our distance if we were concerned. Now it is virtually impossible to tell who is and is not vaccinated,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.

“With more than 200 million Americans still not fully vaccinated, now is not the time to let our guard down,” he noted. “Given the uncertainty we face after the new mask guidance, it’s more urgent than ever for the Department of Labor to issue an OSHA emergency temporary standard that provides clear-cut COVID workplace safety rules that are easy for businesses to follow to keep workers and shoppers safe.”

According to a weekend poll of 2,200 U.S. adults by data intelligence firm Morning Consult, 25% support lifting face mask requirements in most situations, while 40% favor setting mask rules based on local conditions. Twenty-seven percent prefer mask requirements to be upheld.

In terms of common activities, 32% of Morning Consult respondents said they’re comfortable going to the grocery store without a mask versus 58% saying they’d only be comfortable shopping in a grocery store with a mask. Among other activities, the percentage of consumers who said they’d be comfortable without a mask was 48% for dining outdoors, 38% for dining indoors, 38% for staying at a hotel, 36% for going on a vacation, 32% for socializing in public, 32% for working in person, 29% for going to a shopping mall, 22% for flying domestically and 21% for riding on public transportation.

The CDC’s new mask guidance comes as more Americans get vaccinated. Through the morning of May 19, 47.9% of the U.S. population had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, with 37.8% fully immunized, according to CDC data. Among adults, 60.2% had received at least one dose, with 47.9% fully vaccinated. For seniors, those figures rise to 84.7% for people receiving at least one dose and 73% being fully vaccinated. And including adolescent vaccinations, 56.8% of Americans ages 12 and older had gotten at least one shot (44.8% fully vaccinated). Overall, 277.3 million of the 349.2 million vaccines delivered by manufacturers had been administered.

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