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Kroger to drop mask requirement for vaccinated shoppers

CBS News logo CBS News 5/19/2021 Megan Cerullo
a man standing in front of a computer: kroger-april-15-03.jpg © Kroger kroger-april-15-03.jpg

Kroger is joining Home Depot and other large retailers in dropping mask requirements for fully vaccinated customers and employees in some stores following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Kroger, the largest U.S. supermarket chain, on Wednesday said fully vaccinated customers and most fully vaccinated employees will no longer be required to wear masks, unless a state or local ordinance requires otherwise, starting Thursday. Kroger is requesting that unvaccinated customers continue to wear masks and is requiring unvaccinated employees do so as well, the company stated. Those working in Kroger pharmacies and clinics will be required to wear a mask in keeping with CDC guidance for health care settings.

People who aren't fully vaccinated must still wear masks in Home Depot stores and in states where mask mandates remain in place, a company spokesperson for the home improvement chain told CBS MoneyWatch. Coffee chain Starbucks on Monday also eased its COVID-19 policies, stating that customers no longer need to don masks in stores unless local laws require facial coverings. 

The three companies revised their COVID-19 policies after the CDC's surprise guidance last week that Americans who are vaccinated against the virus do not have to wear masks outdoors and in most indoor settings. The announcement on is leaving businesses scrambling over how to align the new recommendations with their own safety practices, including whether to treat inoculated customers and employees differently from people who have yet to get their shots.

Following the health agency's announcement, some of the nation's largest retailers said they have no immediate plans to change their policies and will still require customers and workers to wear masks while on the premises. 

Yet other businesses said they're re-evaluating their protocols, while companies like Disney that cater to tourists are chomping at the proverbial bit to ease mask rules for visitors. Grocery chain Trader Joe's became the first prominent U.S. retailer Friday to drop its mask policies for vaccinated shoppers. A Trader Joe's worker at a downtown Manhattan store in New York City said the grocer is no longer enforcing a mask requirement despite an existing state mandate. Still, most shoppers wore masks inside the store Sunday. 

Trader Joe's could be running afoul of the law by allowing unvaccinated customers to roam maskless around stores in some places.

"New York has not yet lifted the mask mandate. Companies cannot make their own rules until the governor makes the decision to lift the mandate," said Helen Rella, an employment and labor attorney at law firm Wilk Auslander. 

Trader Joe's did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its COVID-19 rules in states like New York that require masks and social distancing.

Walmart drops mask mandate

Walmart, the largest U.S. retailer, said in a memo to employees that as of Friday vaccinated customers can shop without masks. Fully vaccinated employees will be able to work without masks as of May 18, although workers who haven't been fully vaccinated will still need to wear masks, it added. The company also said it is giving $75 bonuses to vaccinated workers as "a thank you for getting vaccinated," but employees will need to provide proof of vaccination to get the money.

"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," the memo to both Walmart and Sam's Club employees said. 

Target hesitated — requiring masks and social distancing in stores for guests and team members last week — before dropping its mask mandate for customers and employees Monday. 

"Target will continue to require all of our coronavirus safety measures in all stores, including masks and social distancing, while we review [Thursday's] guidance from the CDC and re-evaluate the guidance we offer our team and guests," a spokesperson said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch Friday. 

Starbucks said that in light of the CDC's new guidance, beginning Monday, facial coverings are optional for vaccinated customers unless local regulations require them by law. Starbucks employees must continue to mask up.

Macy's is among the major retailers are also weighing the guidance before ditching their mask requirements.

a group of people sitting at a table: Fully vaccinated people don't need masks: CDC... 05:51 © Provided by CBS News Fully vaccinated people don't need masks: CDC... 05:51

The decision by some businesses to continue enforcing mask policies is understandable given the ongoing health risks and public sensitivities about getting vaccinated, said Rella, the employment attorney. 


Video: Mask Off For Vaccinated Salon Customers In Connecticut (CBS New York)

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"Unfortunately, in retail settings that are open to the public, there is no way to determine if patrons are vaccinated short of asking for proof prior to entry, which is not likely to happen," she said.

Roughy 36% of people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated and have received CDC-issued vaccine cards as proof. But scammers also have seized the opportunity to forge the low-tech cards, as well as sell stolen authentic cards to unvaccinated individuals.  

"Very big news" for Disney

Walt Disney CEO Bob Chapek celebrated the CDC's new guidance and said he expects it to have an immediate effect on business. 

The health agency's revised guidelines are "very big news for us, particularly if anybody's been in Florida in the middle of the summer with a mask on," Chapek told investors in an earnings call on Thursday after the CDC change in policy was revealed. "We've already started to increase our capacities" at Disney attractions, added Chapek, who predicted that the relaxed recommendations would quickly boost attendance at Disney's theme parks, water parks and other venues.

Rival amusement park operator Six Flags Entertainment said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch that the company is reviewing the new CDC guidance and would adjust its mask policy "with the health and safety of our guests and team members top of mind." 

Six Flags currently requires all guests over age 2 to wear face masks at its 27 amusement parks across North America. 

a person posing for the camera: CDC Director Walensky on new mask guidelines 05:33 © Provided by CBS News CDC Director Walensky on new mask guidelines 05:33

Casino operator Wynn Resorts was among the first businesses to tell guests they can stop wearing masks, citing the CDC's new guidance. 

"Beginning this evening, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore will communicate to guests that they are not required to wear a mask if they are fully vaccinated and are required to wear a mask if they are not. The resort trusts guests to take the appropriate precautions based on their personal vaccination status," the company said in a statement Thursday. 

The same policy applies to Wynn's employees, the company said. 

Despite the urgency to ease COVID-19 protocols by some businesses, a union representing 1.3 million food and retail workers said the CDC's latest guidance could put its members at risk. The new policy fails to consider the safety of workers across the country who must deal directly with the public in stores and supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers said in a news release. 

Frontline workers are again being put in the position of having to police whether customers are following public safety rules — in this case enforcing mask-wearing among the unvaccinated, according to the labor group.

"While we all share the desire to return to a mask-free normal, [the 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," Marc Perrone, the UFCW's international president, said in a statement. 

Trader Joe's: "We trust our customers"

The supermarket chain Trader Joe's became one of the first big-name retailers on Friday to drop mask requirements for customers who are fully vaccinated. The company has 530 stores in the U.S., and masking remains a must for employees. 

A spokeswoman for grocer told CBS MoneyWatch explained the new policy: "In accordance with CDC guidelines, customers who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks while shopping in our stores. We do not require proof of vaccination, as we trust our customers to follow CDC guidelines. At this time, masks are still required for our Crew Members."

Costco: Local rules apply

At Costco's nearly 560 stores across the country, it's the local rules that matter. Craig Jelinek, president and CEO of the membership-only retailer said in a statement Friday that fully vaccinated members and guests can enter without face masks or face shields at Costco stores where the state or local jurisdiction does not have a mask mandate.

In those Costco locations where state or local mask mandates remain in place, masks are still required, Jelinek said. 

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