Walmart will require customers to wear masks in its more than 5,000 stores in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the company announced Wednesday.
Beginning July 20, the nation's largest retailer will mandate face coverings at all its stores, including Sam’s Club. The company will provide complimentary masks for customers who come in without one, or masks can be purchased in the store.
“While we’re certainly not the first business to require face coverings, we know this is a simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities,” the company wrote in a joint statement from Walmart Chief Operating Officer Dacona Smith and Sam’s Club Chief Operating Officer Lance de la Rosa.
Walmart joins several national chains in requiring masks in their retail stores. Costco began requiring its members to wear facial coverings in its warehouses in May. Starbucks begins its face covering mandate this week across its 9,000 locations. Next week, Best Buy will require all of its shoppers to wear masks.
The Kroger grocery chain also announced Wednesday that customers will be required to wear masks at its stores starting July 22. Employees already wear masks, the company said.
"We recognize additional precautions are needed to protect our country," Kroger said in a statement. The Cincinnati-based company has nearly 2,800 stores in 35 states, according to its website.
While there is no nationwide mandate to wear a mask, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people to wear a cloth face covering in public. The measure has shown to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, according to an agency study published Tuesday.
But facial coverings have become a lightning rod across the country as people have come to see wearing masks as a violation of their constitutional rights. President Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested that people only wear a mask if they choose to do so, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's leading infectious disease expert and a member of Trump's Coronavirus Task Force, has said not wearing a mask "increases the risk of there being transmissibility" of the virus.
Most major retailers have hesitated to roll out mask mandates in their stores in light of these protests. But attitudes have shifted in recent weeks as new coronavirus infections mount across the country and states scramble to roll back reopenings to mitigate surges. More than 3.4 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 137,000 have died, according to data collected by NBC News.
“We know some people have differing opinions on this topic,” Walmart said in a press release. “We also recognize the role we can play to help protect the health and well-being of the communities we serve by following the evolving guidance of health officials like the CDC.”
About 65 percent of its stores and clubs are located in areas where there is some form of government mandate on face coverings, the company said.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association called on governors last week to pass statewide mandates requiring people to wear masks in public. And this week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents grocery workers, also urged government officials to pass a mandate on face coverings in public.