By Elisabeth Buchwald
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course on its masking guidance last week — and the move has important implications for retailers and other businesses. Some restaurants, for example, are already telling customers, as the delta variant spreads, “ No vax, no service .”
The CDC now recommends that people, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas where there’s “substantial and high transmission” of COVID-19, as well as in K-12 schools. In May, the agency relaxed face mask guidance, saying it was no longer necessary for fully vaccinated individuals to wear one indoors.
Ultimately, state and local governments don’t have to adopt the CDC’s recommendations.
On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended that the city’s 8 million residents wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Seven Bay Area counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma) and the city of Berkeley announced indoor mask mandates regardless of vaccination status effective Tuesday.
Businesses can require patrons to wear masks even if they operate in areas where they aren’t required.
Target, Walmart /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT +0.77% and Costco /zigman2/quotes/201191698/composite COST +1.00% , among other large retail chains, dropped mask wearing for vaccinated shoppers after the CDC issued its mask guidance in May.
On Monday, Target /zigman2/quotes/207799045/composite TGT +0.89% released a statement: “Effective Tuesday, based on the CDC’s updated guidance, we’ll require face coverings for our team members and strongly recommend face coverings for all guests in areas with substantial or high risk of transmission, as defined by the CDC.”
Kroger /zigman2/quotes/206215053/composite KR +1.33% also said in a statement that it “strongly” encourages customers to wear masks. “We will continue to abide by all state and local mandates and encourage all Americans to get vaccinated, including our associates,” the company added.
Walmart said it’s encouraging customers to wear masks in areas with rising coronavirus cases and will post “health ambassadors” to entrances to hand out masks to customers.
One day after the CDC’s announcement Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +1.37% announced plans to require employees and customers to wear masks from July 29 at more than half of its 270 U.S. retail stores, Bloomberg reported , citing the following company memo:
“After carefully reviewing the latest CDC recommendations, and analyzing the health and safety data for your local area, we are updating our guidance on face masks for your store.” (Apple did not respond to a request for comment.)
Speaking to reporters last week, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky highlighted her concerns around the highly contagious delta variant and the considerable share of people who remain unvaccinated. She defined “substantial and high transmission” as 50 or more new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.
More than 2,500 U.S. counties, or 79% of all counties, are experiencing substantial or high transmission, according to a county-level CDC tracker of cases. “Many more infections that are occurring now in the United States are a result of unvaccinated people compared to vaccinated people,” Walensky told SiriusXM on July 28.
The reversal further signifies that the pandemic is far from over, even as many Americans go shopping again, travel, attend concerts and sporting events and go to bars and nightclubs, activities once deemed too unsafe. Airlines require masks to be worn, but other establishments have a mixed bag of mask policies.
Wearing masks indoors at retailers, gyms and other outlets would not only protect other customers, but it would also protect employees, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers labor union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, including pharmacy technicians and grocery-store employees.
“A national mask mandate is the only way we can finally take control of this virus and every retail CEO in the country must recognize that now is the time for all of us to mask up so we can keep our economy open and communities safe,” the union said in a statement released last week, according to Reuters.
Mark Cohen, the former CEO of Sears Canada Inc., believes all businesses should do just that. If he were still the head of a retailer, he added, he “would insist on vaccination and masks for all employees and masks for all customers,” he said. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Mask usage in stores will comfort some customers and turn others off,” said Cohen, currently the director of retail studies at Columbia University. “When all else fails, the overriding issue of health and survival in this crisis outweighs all other issues.”
Gyms also revisit mask policies
There’s a lot at stake. Equinox, which owns SoulCycle and Blink Fitness, saw a 55% spike in new members in New York City in the week after the CDC relaxed its guidance on mask wearing in May, Harvey Spevak, executive chairman of Equinox Group, told CNBC . (Equinox did not respond to a request for comment.)
ClassPass, a fitness class booking platform, saw a 32% increase in bookings at Boston-based studios from May 29, when Massachusetts lifted its mask mandate to the beginning of July, The Boston Globe reported. For his part, Cohen said gyms and fitness studios should put health and masks ahead of customer convenience.
Ahead of the CDC’s announcement, CEO Brian Dodge of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade association, asked customers to abide by local business policies and “respect employees and their fellow customers who may continue to wear masks for the safety of themselves and their family.”
And in response to the CDC’s updated guidance, the National Retail Federation, a trade organization representing retailers, said “it is truly unfortunate that mask recommendations have returned when the surest known way to reduce the threat of the virus is widespread vaccination.”
“The CDC’s latest guidance underscores the urgency for more Americans to become fully vaccinated so we can all emerge from this pandemic,” the group said.