New guidance on mask-wearing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week once again complicated the business of running a store during the pandemic.
The health agency on Thursday released a notice stating that "fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting," taking federal, state and local officials by surprise and creating confusion over the weekend for store customers and employees. Even the Biden Administration was unaware of the shift until after the CDC's announcement.
Major retailers including Walmart, Target and Costco swiftly issued new policies eliminating their in-store mask requirements, except, as the CDC guidance also states, "where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations." The National Retail Federation hailed the development as helping "to open the economy and get more people back to work."
"Retailers' biggest priority is protecting the health and safety of their customers, colleagues and communities," the group also said. "Retailers will continue to follow coronavirus-related laws and regulations governing store operations in each state."
But, with government officials outside the CDC themselves unaware of the update until Thursday or even Friday, several state and local ordinances mandating mask-wearing in stores remain on the books, complicating policies for national chains. Several states moved to lift their own restrictions, while others did not. Furthermore, the new guidance applies only to those who are fully vaccinated, leaving many to wonder how exactly that would be made known in a setting like a store where most people don't know each other.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association called for further guidance, saying the policy "creates ambiguity for retailers because it fails to fully align with state and local orders" and puts "retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations." United Food and Commercial Workers President Marc Perrone slammed the update, saying that retail workers remain at risk for contracting COVID-19 at work, per an email from the union.
The problem recalls the chaos of last year, when, as mask-wearing became a political football, minimum wage retail workers were left to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing — two of the best ways to avoid the spread of the virus and crucial before vaccines were developed. By the summer retailers were calling on governors to issue mask mandates in order to take the onus off the businesses and their employees.