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Retailers Revisit Mask Debate After New C.D.C. Guidelines


Updated guidance from the government on pandemic precautions has put retailers in a position they thought they were past: deciding whether or not to mandate masks for customers and employees.

The new recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for wearing masks again in places where the virus is spreading fast and cover nearly two-thirds of U.S. counties. Just two months ago, the agency said fully vaccinated people could remove their masks. But the Delta variant of the coronavirus has changed the safety equation and the guidelines.

Some companies responded swiftly. Apple announced on Wednesday that it would start requiring employees and customers to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status in more than half of its stores.

“Retailers will continue to follow the guidance of the C.D.C.,” the National Retail Federation said in a statement. It added, “It is truly unfortunate that mask recommendations have returned when the surest known way to reduce the threat of the virus is widespread vaccination.”

Other large retailers refrained from making any immediate policy changes.

A spokeswoman for Publix, which has more than 1,000 stores across Florida and the rest of the South, said the grocer was “reviewing the updated C.D.C. guidance at this time and will provide updates regarding our policies as appropriate.”

Starbucks and Chipotle still allow customers to enter their locations without wearing a mask, except where required by local regulations or law, according to their websites. Officials for Macy’s, Target, Walmart and Kohl’s did not have any immediate comment.

“The safest course of action to be able to have something to refer to is to simply say we plan to adhere to C.D.C. guidelines,” said Joel Bines, who leads the retail operations at the consulting firm Alix Partners. But he said many companies he was speaking to were not prepared to reverse course on masks.

“You have a set of retailers who have evaluated the data and the information and are coming to the conclusion that they’ve already made the change that they’re going to make and they’re not planning on going back,” Mr. Bines said.

When major retailers announced mask mandates earlier in the pandemic, enforcement was largely left to store employees, and customers didn’t always go along. With more than half of adults in the country now vaccinated and many more accustomed to a mask-free life again, it may be even more difficult to persuade recalcitrant customers to put on a mask.

“It was definitely challenging at the beginning — we had to get used to the whole new dress code,” said Mayer Gold, the vice president for operations at Seasons Kosher Supermarket, a grocery chain in the New York area. “It almost became like second nature, not as challenging. I believe it will get challenging again — because the rules were relaxed for a while — if you do go back again.”

Given the constantly evolving nature of the pandemic, however, reluctance to renew mask mandates could change.

“If there’s a significant spike in cases in a particular market, that’s when retailers will probably start to get worried about their employees,” said Rupesh Parikh, a retail analyst at Oppenheimer.

The current C.D.C. recommendations, which are up to local governments to enforce, effectively vary by county. That means a retailer could have two stores in the same general area operating with two different approaches to masks. And the rules are geared toward the most vulnerable counties with low vaccination rates, where people may also resist mask policies.

“It’s trying to motivate better protections in places that are having the worst outbreak, but they’re having bad outbreaks because these are the areas that haven’t thought this was a big enough deal to even get vaccinated in the first place,” said Joseph Allen of Harvard’s School of Public Health, who has been advising companies on pandemic-related matters.

“Probably what will happen is in places that are highly vaccinated that we don’t necessarily need — vaccinated will wear masks,” he said, while “others will ignore it.”

For retailers that were forced to close for at least part of 2020, there might be little motivation to potentially alienate needed customers over masks.

“They want the business, especially after the year we just had,” said Luisa Borrell, professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy. “They say the customer is always right, but if there’s not a national mandate, it’s going to be hard for them to enforce that.”

At Giacomo Fine Food, a deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, fully vaccinated customers may still go mask-free, said Omar Bravo, a store employee. It will again require masks for all customers if the New York State Department of Health instructs it to.

As for the new C.D.C. guidelines? Mr. Bravo had not heard about them yet. “It’s hard to keep up,” he said.

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