UPDATE: Walmart announced Friday that it will require employees at stores in COVID hot spots to wear masks and will encourage customers to wear them.
Will we see a return of mask mandates at the nation's top retailers?
With the delta variant surging, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that people vaccinated against the coronavirus start wearing masks indoors again in areas with substantial or high transmission.
The new mask guidance announced Tuesday comes nearly 11 weeks after the CDC said in May that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear face masks. Retailers quickly changed policies for vaccinated customers following the CDC's last May update.
Major retailers have not yet announced updated policies but that could quickly change, Neil Saunders, managing director of consultancy GlobalData Retail, told USA TODAY. He said he expects retailers could reinstate mask requirements just as they removed them after the CDC advised in May.
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“The main issue with this will be one of compliance,” Saunders said Tuesday. “There was already strong resistance to masks the first time around and this will likely be stronger as re-masking will be seen as a retrograde step.”
On Wednesday, Apple became the first to confirm it planned to add masks to half of its U.S. stores.
Mask compliance has sparked debates throughout the pandemic as Americans received mixed messages from authorities over whether they should wear face coverings in public places.
Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Walgreens, Home Depot and other major chains, said Tuesday that retailers understand that the guidance may evolve and “masks may be necessary again in some circumstances.”
“We ask customers to be mindful of the guidance provided by local retailers, and that they respect employees and their fellow customers who may continue to wear masks for the safety of themselves and their family,” Dodge said in a statement ahead of the CDC’s announcement.
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The CDC’s announcement comes a few days after Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief COVID-19 medical adviser, said the agency was reexamining mask recommendations amid surging cases triggered by the highly transmissible delta variant.
The delta variant accounts for more than 80% of COVID-19 cases across the United States, according to the CDC.
"The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and be an opportunist," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Tuesday briefing. "In rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. ... This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations."
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the union for 1.3 million food and retail workers, said the CDC’s recommendation doesn’t go far enough.
“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,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement Tuesday.
Perrone said retail employees have been “forced to play vaccination police because of the confusing patchwork of state and local mask policies” and that urgent action is needed to strengthen COVID-19 safety enforcement.
Stores changing mask policies
Most retailers, including Walmart and Target, started adding mask policies in the summer of 2020 with Costco starting to require masks in early May 2020.
Costco was then among the first to drop masks for fully vaccinated shoppers with an announcement May 14. Walmart and Sam's Club also announced a change to mask guidelines May 14. Target's policy changed days later.
Customers who live in areas with state or local mask requirements have had to continue to wear masks – regardless of vaccination status.
When retailers dropped mask rules for vaccinated people they said they wouldn't interrogate people or request their vaccination cards at the door and instead relied on the honor system.
In May, more than 500 USA TODAY readers shared their thoughts on whether the mask policy changes would change their shopping habits. About 80% of them self-reported they were fully vaccinated with many saying they planned to keep wearing masks, while others who self-reported as unvaccinated said they would not wear masks nor get the vaccine.
According to an Axios/Ipsos poll from late June, 55% of respondents said they were wearing masks “sometimes” or “at all times” in public, down from 84% who said the same in early May.
Penzeys Spices, a specialty retailer headquartered in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, sent shoppers an email Tuesday ahead of the CDC announcement saying it was time to mask up again in its stores.
The retailer also posted an update on its website saying it was requiring masks in all of its stores because of the rapid rise in COVID-19 infections.
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Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CDC mask guidelines: Will stores mandate masks again after update?