ATLANTA, Georgia -- Vaccinated shoppers and workers can ditch their masks at Walmart, Target and Home Depot, except where local laws require masks in stores.
At Starbucks, CVS, Walgreens and Macy's, vaccinated customers no longer need to wear masks unless there are local mandates. But all employees will still need to mask up.
Gap, Ulta and others, though, have not loosened their policies and are still requiring all of their customers and workers to wear masks.
A patchwork system of mask policies has emerged at large retail chains in the United States in the wake of CDC guidance last week that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors, except in health care settings, on public transportation, or in other areas where governments mandate masks.
Retailers are moving quickly to adapt to the latest federal guidance, but industry leaders and unions say it's created confusion for stores, workers and customers over how to approach mask policies.
"It's a real hodgepodge, and it's confusing for an individual to know whether they should or should not be wearing a mask depending on which store they walk into and for businesses to decide what's the best decision," said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "It's all taking place in this overall transition period here in the United States as we get more and more vaccines out there."
This confusion comes after a particularly tough year for retail workers across the country. Mask-wearing at stores has been a polarizing issue, and many workers have struggled to deal with shoppers who refuse to wear masks. The new CDC guidance makes it even tougher to enforce mask requirements at stores that have kept them. And at ones that haven't, there's no way to tell if customers coming in are vaccinated.
The challenge of enforcing mask rules
Making matters more complicated for retailers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency tasked with regulating safety standards at workplaces, has not changed its recommendations that retail workers wear masks on the job.
"OSHA is reviewing the recent CDC guidance," the agency said on its website, and advised employers to follow the new CDC guidance to create "measures appropriate to protect fully vaccinated workers."
David French, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation, which represents large retail chains, said that some stores are still requiring workers to mask up because "many customers prefer to see everybody masked" when they shop.
Retailers want to set uniform standards across their stores on mask wearing, he said, but they also must adhere to local regulations.
Ten states still have statewide mask mandates in place, according to Kaiser. Twenty-seven states had mask mandates prior to the updated CDC guidance last Thursday.
"When there's a patchwork system, a protocol in one city might be different from the protocol in a neighboring city. And that gets confusing," said French.
On Tuesday, the National Retail Federation and another retail industry trade group, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, wrote a joint letter to the National Governors Association and the US Conference of Mayors asking for clarity on local mask orders.
The groups said local orders on masks are complicating the situation at stores and expressed concern that workers will be put in the position of enforcing mask policies in locations where mandates are in place.
"Retail employees should not be asked to serve as de facto law enforcement related to masks," the groups said. "If localities choose to keep mask requirements in place for unvaccinated Americans, administration of these requirements must not be placed on retail employees."
States should consider the "practicality" of state and local rules on masks following federal guidance changes, the groups said.
Unions for retail and grocery workers have criticized CDC guidance and loosening mask policies. They say the new guidance makes it more difficult for workers to enforce local mask mandates and that stores have no way of verifying which customers are vaccinated. They worry that unvaccinated shoppers will come into shop without masks.
A Starbucks worker in Savannah, Georgia, said throughout the pandemic he has had to ask customers to mask up because of Starbucks' requirement and a county mask mandate. This worker spoke under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But now that Starbucks has ended its mask rule for vaccinated shoppers, he said, the rule is unenforceable.
"It's in place, but it means nothing," he said. "We have no way to tell if anyone is vaccinated."
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