Citing evolved recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the continued struggle to overcome spiraling transmissions of the coronavirus, Walmart said it would require all shoppers in its stores and Sam’s Club locations to wear face coverings beginning July 20.
The move was met with approval from advocates for retailers and could trigger similar moves among retailers impatient for a national mandate.
“To help bring consistency across stores and clubs, we will require all shoppers to wear a face covering starting Monday, July 20,” Dacona Smith, Walmart’s U.S. chief operating officer, said in a blog post published July 15. “This will give us time to inform customers and members of the changes, post signage and train associates on the new protocols.”
Walmart said approximately 65% of its 5,000 stores and clubs are already under local mandates for face coverings.
Since the onset of the pandemic in March, large retailers have adapted to a patchwork of state and local regulations designed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus but have encountered resistance from some shoppers interpreting the requirement as an infringement upon their personal liberties. The CDC initially was slow to embrace masks, fearful of sending a message that they prevented transmission and were not merely a defense. U.S. consumers, in the meantime, have received what they interpret to be mixed messages from authorities, including President Donald Trump, whose own position on the topic—he mocked it before reversing course this week, also citing evolving recommendations—is thought to have influenced a number of shoppers. Nearly all retailers, including Walmart, have required employees to wear face coverings for months but few have extended the mandate to customers in locales that have not required them.
Underscoring the issue is a pandemic that has shown few signals of abating in the U.S., particularly now in locales that have moved to “reopen” their economies to places of business such as restaurants and theaters. Essential retail workers have been at the forefront of much of the danger. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union late last month said some 29,000 of its members in the food and retail fields have been impacted by the virus and more than 230 have died.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group representing big-box retailers of which Walmart is a prominent member, has previously lobbied for a national policy on face covering to no avail. Last week, the UFCW called for a similar national mandate for grocery stores, joining a coalition of more than 100 health experts.
Walmart said it would seek to enforce its new requirement by training a team of Health Ambassadors, who will be positioned near store entrances to remind shoppers of the new requirements. Walmart said it would also prominently post signage indicating the new policy at entrances, as well as reduce the number of customer entrances at all of its to its stores to a single point.
“Our ambassadors will receive special training to help make the process as smooth as possible for customers,” Smith said. “The ambassadors, identifiable by their black polo shirts, will work with customers who show up at a store without a face covering to try and find a solution.”
Smith said the company is “considering different solutions” for non-mask wearing when the requirement takes effect but his post did not elaborate on them. Associates, he added, would be trained to deal with customers who cannot wear masks for medical reasons “to help reduce friction for the shopper and make the process as easy as possible for everyone.”
At Sam’s Clubs, associates at the entrance will follow the same process with members, Smith added, “politely reminding them of our requirement to wear a face covering when shopping with us.”
At Sam’s, complimentary masks will be provided if the member doesn’t have one. Or members can purchase masks in the club.
“As we have seen in states and municipalities with mask mandates, virtually everyone either brings a mask or readily complies with the requirement, and we anticipate that to happen in other areas as well,” Smith said.
“We know some people have differing opinions on this topic. 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,” he continued. “We appreciate the understanding and cooperation of our customers and members in wearing face coverings to protect their safety and the safety of our associates.”
The National Retail Federation applauded Walmart’s move.
“We hope today’s announcement by Walmart—the world’s largest retailer—that it will be enforcing a policy requiring customers to wear a mask to shop in their stores is a tipping point in this public health debate," it said in a release. "Workers serving customers should not have to make a critical decision as to whether they should risk exposure to infection or lose their jobs because a minority of people refuse to wear masks in order to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, retailers of all sizes have been on the front lines safely serving customers and supporting their communities. Stores are private businesses that can adopt policies permitted by law for the health and safety of their associates and their customers. Shopping in a store is a privilege, not a right. If a customer refuses to adhere to store policies, they are putting employees and other customers at undue risk.
“As noted in a letter we co-signed with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and other industry groups that was sent to President Trump, Vice President Pence and governors across the country two weeks ago, it is critically important that we have a national mask standard implemented locally. Retailers are protecting the health and safety of communities they serve. Our elected leaders need to set politics aside and follow their example.”