The new guidelines for wearing masks, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 13, sparked elation in millions of Americans exhausted by the personal vigilance that constant mask-wearing requires.
But within the retail industry, the new set of guidelines—which stipulates that fully vaccinated people (those whose final vaccination shot is at least two weeks in the past) no longer have to wear masks outdoors and indoors in places that permit it—has also fomented some unease.
Here’s why: Retailers were forced to create and maintain new safety protocols in the COVID-19 era. These endeavors not only took a lot of effort and investment—they also saved lives. Backed by local and federal governmental regulations, they also gave retailers total control of their physical locations.
With the new rules, that control is not being upended—retailers still have every right to require customers to wear masks in their stores. But enforcing mask-wearing, which was already challenging for retail employees in many states, now becomes harder.
In its updated guidelines, the CDC stated that if you’re fully vaccinated, “you can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
The verbiage stipulating that citizens can’t umask when “local businesses” don’t allow it is there. But both the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) say the absolute rights of retailers to still require consumers to wear masks isn’t being communicated strongly enough, and is leading to confusion on the part of retailers and consumers.
In a letter sent on May 18 to Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York and chairman of the National Governors Association, and Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, Ky., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the RILA and the NRF said the new guidelines aren’t clear enough, and are needlessly “complicating the situation” for retailers, their employees, and customers.
The letter reads, “Retail employees should not be asked to serve as de facto law enforcement related to masks for vaccinated versus non-vaccinated customers. As state and local officials consider the evolving federal guidance on masks, we urge thoughtful consideration related to the practicality of state and local orders. Our recommendation is to permit state and local orders to track CDC guidance closely, allowing retailers to make national policy decisions that reflect the most current scientific advice. If localities choose to keep mask requirements in place for unvaccinated Americans, administration of these requirements must not be placed on retail employees.”
The comforting news is that the COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be very effective. The CDC reported April 26 that among the roughly 95 million Americans who had been fully vaccinated, there were only 9,245 reported cases of “breakthrough” infections (cases in which fully vaccinated people tested positive for the virus)—which amounts to less than .01%.
As a result, many major U.S. retailers, including Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, and Costco, have already eased or removed mask mandates.
(Photo courtesy of Signet Jewelers)
Follow Emili Vesilind on Instagram: @emilivesilind