Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include Walmart's announced policy on mask requirements.
Relaxed COVID-19 face mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could compel grocery store workers to serve as “mask police” to protect themselves from the virus, according to United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
The CDC yesterday released updated guidance on face coverings for protection against coronavirus, saying that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in indoor or outdoor settings, except where required by federal, state, municipal or other rules and regulations, including from local businesses and workplaces.
However, UFCW described the CDC’s new recommendations as unclear and potentially compromising the safety of frontline workers in grocery and other retail stores, who remain exposed to the virus. Marc Perrone, president of UFCW International, noted that many Americans still haven’t received a COVID vaccine and now will shed their masks in stores, presenting a danger to employees.
“While we all share the desire to return to a mask-free normal, today’s CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks,” Perrone said in a statement on Thursday. “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?”
For fully vaccinated consumers, the risk of COVID-19 infection is minimal and the chance of transmitting the virus is reduced, hence the modified mask and distancing guidelines, the CDC said. However, “prevention measures are still recommended for unvaccinated people,” the agency noted.
Retailers have begun reassessing their mask requirements in response to the CDC’s changes, and a number of major chains — such as The Kroger Co., Target, Albertsons Cos., H-E-B, CVS, Walgreens, Aldi and Sprouts Farmers Market — are still requiring shoppers to wear face coverings in stores, according to published reports.
Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, on Friday announced that it would no longer require masks for fully vaccinated customers and employees, saying, "Beginning today, vaccinated customers and members are welcome to shop without a mask, and we will continue to request that non-vaccinated customers and members wear face coverings in our stores and clubs. We will update the signage in our facilities to reflect this."
Walmart further stated in a memo to associates, "Masks will also continue to be required by some city and state ordinances, and we will follow those requirements. There may also be local conditions, regulatory changes or laws that affect our guidance. We will be communicating with your local store, club or facility management team as regulations change so they can keep you informed."
Also on Friday, the Washington Post and USA Today reported that Trader Joe’s has updated its mask policy and now won’t require fully vaccinated customers to cover their faces. Trader Joe’s announced the policy change on its website, the Post and USA Today said, but as of late Friday afternoon the web page wasn’t accessible.
“We encourage customers to follow the guidance of health officials, including, as appropriate, CDC guidelines that advise customers who are fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks while shopping,” Trader Joe’s said in its statement, USA Today reported.
According to the Post, Trader Joe’s stated, “We are vigilant; reviewing federal, state and local health advisories; meeting or exceeding government mandates; and where it makes sense, adjusting efforts.”
An FMI-The Food Industry study released at the end of March estimated that the U.S. food retail sector has spent nearly $24 billion on COVID-19 pandemic-related costs, including $3 billion in cleaning/sanitation supplies and labor plus $1 billion in personal protective equipment (PPE) and related expenses. The latter includes more than $225 million on face masks and over $160 million on gloves.
Since March 1, UFCW grocery worker members have experienced a nearly 35% increase in deaths from COVID-19 and almost a 30% rise in infections or exposures, the union said. Among its membership, UFCW estimates 462 deaths from the virus and at least 93,300 infections or exposures since the start of the pandemic last year, including 184 grocery worker deaths and at least 41,700 grocery worker infections or exposures.
“Vaccinations are helping us take control of this pandemic, but we must not let our guard down,” Perrone commented. “As one of America’s largest unions for essential workers, UFCW is calling on the CDC and our nation’s leaders to clarify how this new [CDC] policy will be implemented, how essential workers will be protected, and how these workers will protect the communities they serve.”
In a CNN interview posted on YouTube by UFCW International, Perrone said a higher vaccination rate is needed in the United States for people to go maskless, and he credited retailers like Kroger with upholding their mask requirements.
“There are still concerns about transmission inside closed indoor spaces where you have large numbers of people. That is what a grocery store looks like on any Saturday or Sunday,” he told CNN. “We need to wear masks at least until we get to herd immunity. Unless we get to 80% level [of vaccinations], we shouldn’t go maskless indoors unless we’re absolutely sure that the people around us are vaccinated.”
Through the early morning of May 14, 46.8% of the U.S. population had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and 36.2% had been fully vaccinated, with 268.4 million vaccines administered of the 341.9 million delivered by manufacturers, according to data from the CDC. Among seniors, 84.2% had received at least one dose (72.1% fully vaccinated), while 59.1% of Americans ages 18 and older had gotten at least one shot (46.1% fully vaccinated).