Mask-weary Americans got some welcome news on Thursday when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its guidance on face coverings. Those who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus would no longer have to wear masks in most situations, including indoors.
But a union representing hundreds of thousands of grocery store workers isn’t celebrating. The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union warned that the relaxed protocols were unfair to store clerks and cashiers who have no way of knowing who’s vaccinated and who’s not.
“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,” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”
Federal officials are hoping the policy change will encourage more Americans to get vaccinated with the reward being a return to more normal life. But the union said the CDC failed to consider how the guidance would impact essential workers before making the surprise announcement on Thursday. Perrone called on the agency to offer more clarity on “how this new policy will be implemented.”
The CDC noted that people would still need to follow local regulations, and grocers and retailers are free to maintain their own mask requirements for workers and customers. But the UFCW worries the patchwork of rules could lead to confusion and confrontations in stores following the new blanket guidance from federal health officials.
Grocery and retail store employees have found themselves in an uncomfortable position throughout the pandemic, often having to ask maskless customers to put on face coverings indoors. At times, these requests have been met with hostile and even violent reactions from patrons who refuse to wear them.
Retailers and grocers are already responding in different ways.
Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the U.S., said in a statement to HuffPost that it plans to continue requiring customers to wear masks when they visit stores. Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, did not immediately respond when asked whether it’s adjusting its mask policy in light of the CDC’s change. Target told USA Today that it’s keeping its mask requirement in place and will “review updated guidance from the CDC and re-evaluate.”
But Trader Joe’s announced Friday that it would be easing up its mask mandate, allowing customers who are fully vaccinated to go without them.
“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,” the company said.
Like employers, states were responding to the new guidance in different ways. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) lifted the state’s mask mandate on Friday after the CDC’s announcement, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said that their states’ mask requirements would remain in place for the time being.
But there may be some discrepancies within states. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the city would keep its requirement for masking indoors despite the change in Minnesota policy. Mayors of other major cities, including Washington and New York, said they would take some time to review the new CDC guidance before changing their own local rules.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group for retailers, asked that customers follow a store’s policy regardless of the new CDC guidance. The group said in a statement that the CDC’s announcement creates “ambiguity” for businesses because it creates more discrepancies with state and local orders.
“These conflicting positions put retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations,” the group said.
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