Retailers stuck in the middle of CDC’s ‘confusing’ new mask policy

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Welcome to “maskageddon.”

Retailers are finding themselves caught in the middle of the CDC’s new guidance allowing vaccinated people to ditch their masks in public places — both indoors and outdoors except in certain circumstances such as crowded indoor settings.

While some of their customers and even employees may be rejoicing about the news, labor unions have made it clear that they are not happy about the development. And some retailers are unsure about how to address the situation given that many states have not yet lifted their own mask mandates.

“People who work in public facing jobs — such as in supermarkets and other retail establishments — will still need to be protected,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement. “They have no way of knowing whether customers who are not wearing masks have been vaccinated. These workers, many of whom are essential, may be exposed both to the virus and to unnecessary stress. We must encourage customers in high trafficked areas to continue wearing masks.” 

The sentiment was echoed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International union head, Marc Perrone, who said Thursday, “Today’s 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.” 

Indeed, the CDC’s new guidelines stand to create tensions in crowded areas and states like New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not yet lifted the state’s mask mandate as he reviews the new rules. The federal government’s guidance does not supersede state and local laws.

Small and national retailers alike are being swept into the debate with some seemingly unprepared for the sudden and dramatic shift in policy. A hodgepodge of approaches are being rolled out, which only stands to add to the bedlam.

Macy’s and the Gap say they are reviewing the new guidance while Home Depot said it had no plans to change its rules requiring customers and workers to wear masks in its stores, according to the New York Times.

Avi Kaner, owner of supermarket chain Morton Williams, agrees that retailers are being put in a tough spot.

“As soon as the governor lifts the mandate, we will leave it up to the discretion or our employees and customers, giving them the freedom to do what they want to do,” Kaner said of his 15 Big Apple stores. “We are not a police force and can’t ask customers for proof of vaccinations.” 

Ditto for employees, he said. In fact, Kaner said he recently asked the union that represents his employees, Local 338, whether the company could require its employees to be vaccinated in order to work in its stores. “The union said absolutely not.”

Even during the height of the pandemic, it was impossible for retailers to require customers to wear masks, resulting in sometimes violent altercations between employees and customers.

The restaurant industry is also struggling with how to respond to the new federal guidelines.

“Because restaurants welcome people who are both vaccinated and not fully vaccinated, operators will still need to work with their state and local regulators to ensure they are in line with all other mandates,” the National Restaurant Association’s senior vice president, Larry Lynch, said in a statement. “For this reason, the association won’t be immediately updating its COVID-19 operating guidance.”

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