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Major US retailers drop mask requirements for vaccinated shoppers

Shoppers walk out of a Walmart store in Waldorf, Md., May 7, 2021.
Shoppers walk out of a Walmart store in Waldorf, Md., May 7, 2021.Brittany N. Gaddy/Associated Press

A growing number of major retailers are lifting mask requirements for those who are fully inoculated after new federal guidance, largely moving to an honor system in which they trust that only vaccinated people will bare their faces.

The guidance lifts the masking requirement for fully vaccinated people in most settings — though not on transit, in health care facilities or in congregate settings — while affirming that local regulations should still be respected. Fully vaccinated, according to the guidance, means two weeks after receiving a second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s or Moderna’s vaccine, or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s.

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Walmart announced Friday that fully vaccinated customers would no longer need to wear masks, and that fully vaccinated employees would no longer need to as of Tuesday. Costco and Publix are also lifting mask requirements for vaccinated people. Starbucks will also make masks optional for vaccinated customers starting Monday, unless local regulations require them.

Many retailers said they would not require proof of vaccination. Costco, for instance, said it would instead “ask for members’ responsible and respectful cooperation with this revised policy.”

Trader Joe’s will no longer make vaccinated customers wear masks, although face coverings are still required for employees, Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokesperson, said in a statement.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board also issued updated mask guidance Thursday that follows the new federal guidelines, noting that it would not require casinos to confirm the vaccination status of patrons but would also not prevent them from doing so.

Some retailers like Target and CVS, though, plan to continue mandating face coverings for shoppers for now.

“CVS Health is currently re-evaluating its position on masks given the CDC’s new guidance,” Joe Goode, a spokesman, said in a statement. “Until that evaluation is complete, the existing company policies on face coverings and maintaining social distance in stores and clinics remain in effect.”

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The new guidance, released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came as a surprise to many Americans. For months, federal officials warned that wearing masks and social distancing were necessary to control the spread of the virus. The guidance raised some disquiet, because there is no obvious way for retailers, their employees or their patrons to determine who has been vaccinated and who has not.

Some public health experts expressed concerns that unvaccinated people may also choose to shed their masks.

“CDC is betting that by giving wide freedom to vaccinated people it’ll encourage the hesitant,” Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “But there’s no behavioral evidence for that. What’s more likely to happen is that both vaccinated AND unvaccinated people will take off their masks.”

Union leaders have also pointed to the health risks that workers could face.

“Today’s CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a statement Thursday.

“Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” he added.

There are alternatives to an honor system, in the form of documentation of vaccination. However, vaccine cards can be forged, and “vaccine passports” have become a contentious topic, with many Republican governors pushing back on them. Although the passports could help businesses operate more safely, critics argue that they raise privacy and equity concerns. Still, hundreds of airlines, governments and other organizations are experimenting with new, electronic versions.

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On the question of a possible federal vaccine passport, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said at a news briefing Friday that the Biden administration remained focused on the vaccination campaign and was “not currently considering federal mandates.” But she left open the possibility that private-sector companies might want to require some kind of vaccine documentation, citing those “running a stadium, if you are a sports team or something like that.”