On Inauguration Day, three major retail organizations welcomed the Biden Administration, and all zeroed in on its actions to revamp the White House response to the pandemic. An order to elevate and better coordinate the government's pandemic fight and another to require masks on federal property and encourage it elsewhere were issued in the afternoon shortly after Joe Biden was sworn in.
The order that requires federal employees, on-site contractors and anyone in federal buildings or on federal lands to "wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures, as provided in CDC guidelines" was the first one that Biden signed. It also sets into motion a coordinated effort through the Department of Health and Human Services to work with state and local officials, as well as business and other community leaders to advance "public compliance with, and addressing any obstacles to, mask-wearing and other public health best practices identified by CDC."
As he signed the orders behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, two of several executive actions finalized Wednesday, Biden himself wore a mask, something his predecessor rarely did. Last month he called on Americans to wear masks for his first 100 days in office, and promised that he'd require it where he could.
Most retailers last year swiftly embraced mask-wearing and social distancing, even in areas where they weren't mandated by lawmakers. But it's been retail workers (among the lowest paid in the U.S.), who have had to enforce rules often flouted by their customers and have been left vulnerable to infection.
"America has relied on millions of retail workers to stock shelves, deliver goods, clean stores, and provide American families with everything they have needed throughout this pandemic," Retail Industry Leaders Association President Brian Dodge said in a statement Wednesday. "These frontline workers who have kept our supply chains functioning and our storefronts open need Congress to make vaccine funding their top priority."
Biden's moves Wednesday mark the strongest White House endorsement of the best-known methods of thwarting the pandemic outside of a vaccine. While a number of vaccines have been developed against COVID-19, distribution is in the early stages and so far has been slow.
The National Retail Federation, RILA and the American Apparel & Footwear Association and several retail chief executives last year urged political leaders to require consumers to wear masks and practice social distancing, but that was complicated by the previous president's lackadaisical approach despite his own public health experts' endorsement of those measures.
Retailers have embraced the new leadership from the top. The NRF called it "an important development as we turn the page on how we message and engage in the fight against the pandemic." AAFA CEO Steve Lamar went further, suggesting that "Governors and Mayors around the country should follow the President's lead."
"It has become clear that face masks and coverings play an important role in keeping COVID-19 infections down, which is key to keeping American businesses open, American workers employed, and American consumers protected," said Lamar. "The apparel and footwear industry is strongly in favor of this requirement, and encourages the adoption of similar measures in areas outside of the President's jurisdiction by state and city leaders. More than 400,000 Americans have died because of this pandemic. If simply wearing a mask can slow that down, then there is no debate to be had on the subject."