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Retailers — and their customers — are divided over maskless shopping

"The pandemic is still going strong. I think there's a lot of evidence that we can't be lax and drop masks just yet," said one shopper.
A shopper passes near a self-distancing queue outside Trader Joe's in Bailey's Crossroads, Va., on March 31, 2020.
A shopper passes near a self-distancing line outside Trader Joe's in Bailey's Crossroads, Va., on March 31, 2020.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest guidance about masks has divided retailers — and their customers — with some in favor of a return to maskless shopping and others maintaining their social distancing and mask mandates.

The CDC announced last week that fully vaccinated people can leave their masks at home as long as the states they live in also follow suit — along with local businesses.

Home Depot and Target said Monday that they would relax their policies, joining Starbucks, Trader Joe's, Walmart, Publix and BJ's Wholesale Club.

"It's their business. They can do what they want," Luis Villalovos said outside a big-box store in Virginia. "If they don't want to enforce the mask mandate, then that's on them."

While masks are encouraged for nonvaccinated customers, shoppers and employees who are fully vaccinated "are not required to wear masks or facial coverings in Home Depot stores, except where it's mandated by state or local ordinances," said Sara Gorman, a spokesperson for Home Depot.

Trader Joe's announced the same. "We do not require proof of vaccination, as we trust our customers to follow CDC guidelines. At this time, masks are still required for our Crew Members," said Kenya Friend-Daniel, a company spokesperson.

Walmart and BJ's Wholesale Club are also permitting vaccinated customers to shed their face coverings — if local and state regulations allow. Vaccinated employees can do the same starting Tuesday.

In addition, Walmart is reviewing whether masks "may still be required for certain job codes for health and sanitation purposes and will share additional guidance soon," John Furner, Walmart's U.S. president and CEO; Kath McLay, Sam's Club's president and CEO; and Cheryl Pegus, Walmart's executive vice president of health and wellness, wrote in a memo to employees Friday.

"Some associates may choose to continue to wear masks, and as part of our value of respect for the individual, we should all support their right to do so," they said.

Retailers going the opposite route by keeping mask mandates include Walgreens, Rite Aid and TJX Companies, the parent organization of stores like HomeGoods, TJ Maxx and Marshalls.

"As a destination for Covid vaccine and testing, we have decided to keep our current face covering policy in place for the time being," said Fraser Engerman, a spokesperson for Walgreens. "The safety of our team members and customers is our top priority and will continue to guide our decision process."

Rite Aid, another destination for the Covid-19 vaccines, said Tuesday it is keeping its mask requirement policy in place for all customers and associates. "We will continue to monitor CDC guidance and local and state requirements, and update our policy as appropriate," said company spokesperson Chris Savarese.

TJX Companies is "monitoring this matter closely" and will require face coverings for employees and customers in U.S. stores, spokesperson Andrew Mastrangelo said.

The mixed reactions fueled the same from customers.

Liz Eales, who is fully vaccinated, shopped without a mask for the first time in over a year in Virginia on Monday. Asked whether she is concerned about unvaccinated people's going into stores that have lifted their mask mandates, she said no.

"At some point, we have to let people take responsibility for their own decisions, and I'm ready to take that step," she said.

Others are more skeptical.

"I think it's really irresponsible, the people who are dropping it. You know, the pandemic is still going strong. I think there's a lot of evidence that we can't be lax and drop masks just yet," said Victor Baham of New Jersey.

"I feel some people are going to lie about being vaccinated. There's not really any mandate that makes you have proof of it, so that worries me," he said.

Yolanda Sanchez of Brooklyn, New York, said that she is keeping her mask on despite policy changes and that even if she were vaccinated, which she said she is not, that would not change anything.

"Until this is really over, I will keep on having it on," she said.