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Walmart, Disney, Target and Trader Joe’s relax mask policies ‘unless required by local or state regulations’

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 5/18/2021 Andrew Keshner
a group of people standing in front of a sign: Visitors outside a Manhattan shopping mall on May 13, the day the CDC said fully-vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or socially distancing, except in certain cases. © Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images Visitors outside a Manhattan shopping mall on May 13, the day the CDC said fully-vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or socially distancing, except in certain cases.

New federal public health guidelines are clearing the way for fully-vaccinated Americans to clear that mask right off their face and inch back to normalcy.

Just don’t confuse that for a no-mask free pass at the store or on the job.


Video: Trader Joe’s Drops Mask Requirements for Fully-Vaccinated, More Stores Reevaluate Policies (Money Talks News)

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidelines May 13 to say people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can ditch masks in most cases and “resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.”

The new guidelines are suggestions, not requirements. Legal experts noted that state-level rules still supersede CDC guidance, and some companies said their mask rules for employees and customers will stay the same for now.

But others announced changes to their mask policies. Target said Monday that it will stop requiring fully-vaccinated customers and workers to wear masks “except where it’s required by local ordinances,” a spokesperson said. Masks will still be “strongly recommended” for customers and staff who are not fully vaccinated, “and we’ll continue our increased safety and cleaning measures, including social distancing, throughout our stores.”

The company is giving employees paid time off to get the COVID-19 vaccine shot and has arranged appointments with CVS stores at Target locations.

Workplaces can continue to write their own mask rules where state laws allow.

BJ’s Wholesale Club is taking the same approach, saying it will not require fully vaccinated members and staff to mask up “unless required by local or state regulations.”  Customers and employees who are not fully vaccinated must still wear a mask, the company said. The changes take effect immediately for BJ’s Wholesale Club members and kick in May 18 for workers.

Walmart on Friday said it will pay $75 to employees “as a thank you for getting vaccinated,” according to a company announcement. Also, “based on the latest CDC guidance, fully vaccinated associates will not need to wear a mask at work starting Tuesday, May 18,” the announcement said.

Walmart has new rules for customers too. As of May 14, customers “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.” The company will change signs in its stores to display the new policy.

Walmart’s changes and those at other retailers are a reminder that companies have a lot of leeway to set the rules in their own stores for both customers and employees. But they still have to follow any state or local rules regarding masks.

Trader Joe’s said Friday it will follow CDC guidelines. “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,” it said in a statement.

Walt Disney World said Friday it is dropping mask requirements for visitors who are outdoors.

Disney DIS announced late Friday that it had updated its policy regarding face coverings for visitors and employees at Florida’s Walt Disney World, dropping mask requirements for visitors who are outdoors, including at the resort’s four theme parks, hotels and the Disney Springs shopping area.

Other Florida theme parks, including Universal Orlando Resort, have also instituted changes to their COVID-19 policies regarding face masks

Spokespeople for Lyft LYFT and Uber UBER noted their own policies weren’t changing because the updated CDC guideline still say fully-vaccinated people should wear a mask on public transportation. Both companies are providing free rides to vaccination sites through July 4.

Workplaces can usually write their own rules for staff

Workplaces can continue to write their own mask rules for employees in most instances. “These are guidelines and employers have been able to require masks before,” said Professor James Brudney, an employment law expert at Fordham University School of Law.

Without a governor’s prohibition or state or local law, there’s nothing stopping employers from setting the ground rules on conduct on their premises, he said.

Of course, employers can try to impose all sorts of rules that wouldn’t hold up in court. “But this isn’t that,” he said. Company rules relating to masks during a pandemic boil down to worker and consumer safety, he said.

For Brudney, the next new question is “whether employers are authorized to verify which employees are vaccinated and therefore don’t require masks.”

Some workers are suing their employers, saying they cannot be forced to get vaccinated.

Anti-discrimination laws typically restrict how much employers can ask workers about their health, but employers are allowed to ask about a worker’s vaccination status, according to lawyers reading the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance on vaccines in workplace. 

The answer doesn’t necessarily divulge medical information, because an employee could have non-health related reasons for not yet getting the shot, they note.

Some workers are suing their employers, saying they cannot be forced to get vaccinated and shouldn’t get fired if they refuse to do so. Those lawsuits are pending.

To be sure, the CDC itself acknowledged its new mask guidance only goes so far.

“Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” the agency said — but people still need to follow mask rules that are required by government law or regulations “including local business and workplace guidance.”

Fully-vaccinated people also still need to mask up when traveling on public transportation, the CDC added. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at May 13 White House press briefing that the CDC would soon be updating its guidance for businesses and schools.

(If you’re getting tripped up on whether to mask or not to mask at this point in time, you’re not alone.)

Companies requiring masks can still make workers and customers take their terms or leave, according to Michael Green, a professor at Texas A&M University law school and director of its Workplace Law Program. “Like no shoes, no shirt, no service,” he said.

Still, companies must walk a fine line if they continue to strictly stick to mask policies — but also if they change them. For one thing, it might rub some customers the wrong way, he noted. Any decision can create “divisiveness if you go one way or another.”  

The new CDC guidelines put companies in a delicate spot with staff, said John Hooker, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who teaches business ethics. From a workplace regulation standpoint, “the benefit of the mask is now less certain. Employees know that. It makes the factual situation less clear,” said Hooker.

The new guidelines could also intensify a backlash from workers who say they don’t need the masks, he said.

One company solution, said Hooker, is trying programs that incentivize vaccination, and once a certain portion of staff gets vaccinated, mask policies can be altered.

As of Monday, almost 60% of the country’s adult population had received at least one shot and 47% were fully vaccinated, according to CDC statistics.

Some large companies with a national footprint told MarketWatch they do not have mask policy overhauls in store.

“At this time, The Kroger Family of Companies continues to require everyone in our stores to wear masks,” a spokeswoman said on Friday. Kroger is continuing to encourage and incentivize worker vaccination with its $100 one-time payment for fully-vaccinated associates, she noted.

“As we have throughout the pandemic, we are reviewing current safety practices, the CDC’s latest guidance, and soliciting feedback from associates to guide the next phase of our policy,” she said.

This story was updated on May 17, 2021.

a group of people standing in a parking lot © (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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