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Walmart, major retailers go soft on mask-wearing policies, cites abuse from anti-mask customers

Major U.S. retailers are now showing leniency in the enforcement of their own mask-wearing regulations, a new report has found, with the retailers announcing that they will still serve and welcome those who choose to not wear the said face coverings in their establishments.

In a story run by the Daily Mail, while several retail chains had all required shoppers to wear masks if they wanted to shop at their brick-and-mortar locations, management at these stores has told employees to still serve people who defy mask mandates — out of concern for the employees’ safety.

This is in reference to a recent uptick in confrontations between anti-mask customers and retail chain employees, most of which involve customers hurling abuse at clerks and other store staff.

“Many retailers feel like they have to act since some governors haven’t,” Melissa Murdock, spokesperson for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said.

According to Murdock, while the association has been lobbying state governors to require masks to be worn in all 50 states, the implementation of such policies will fall to individual stores at the moment.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, noted in an interview that mask-wearing regulations should be enforced similarly to store policies regarding shoes and shirts.

“Either security or management needs to tell people that they must wear a face mask in order to be served. It’s no different than wearing shoes or a shirt,” Applebaum said.

He also added that if companies are not actively requiring their customers to wear masks while inside their premises, then their mask-wearing regulations are nothing more than “public relations stunts.”

This is echoed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), who, in a survey of 4,000 retail workers, revealed that nearly seven out of 10 retail establishments did not enforce mask mandates in their stores.

One such example is retail chain Walmart, which previously announced that it intends to place “health ambassadors” at their stores’ entrances to remind customers that they need to wear masks inside the premises. (Related: Scientists: Face masks reduce risk of coronavirus infections by 65 percent.)

According to the retail giant, while they will remind customers of their mask-wearing policy, Walmart staff members are still mandated to let customers in — even those who refuse to follow their policy and decline the offer of a free mask from the company.

A Walmart representative said this is because they want to avoid “escalating” the situation and put their staff and employees in harm’s way.

“Our goal is to keep associates from a physical confrontation in the stores,” the Walmart representative said, a possible reference to an incident in which a security guard working at another establishment was shot and killed after he told a customer to wear a mask.

The world’s largest retail chain, about 65 percent of Walmart’s over 5,000 U.S. stores — including its wholesale Sam’s Club outlets — are located in areas where government mandates on face coverings are enforced.

Aside from Walmart, home improvement chain Lowe’s and hardware retail chain Home Depot have also confirmed that they will not ask their staff to confront customers flouting their mask-wearing regulations, although they will still offer complimentary face masks to all customers entering their stores.

Drugstore chain CVS, meanwhile, said that they will put up signs and reminders asking customers to “cooperate” with their mask-on policies.

According to the drugstore, however, non-compliant customers will not be confronted. Instead, the chain said, non-compliant customers will be helped in order for them to complete their purchases as quickly as possible, and that they will inform them of other shopping options that they can avail of in the future, such as free home delivery for prescriptions and drive-thru window services.

“To be clear, we’re not asking our store employees to play the role of enforcer,” CVS chief operating officer Jon Roberts said in a statement, adding that the responsibility of following mask-on policies will have to rest on the customers themselves.

“What we are asking is that customers help protect themselves and those around them by listening to the experts and heeding the call to wear a face covering,” Roberts said.

The mentioned retail chains, however, have said that they will not rule out calling the police and other authorities in the event that a non-compliant customer becomes “belligerent.”

Other establishments that have announced mask-wearing policies are Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Costco, Gap, Kroger, Target and Walgreens.

Fabric retail chain Joann Fabric and Craft Stores, meanwhile, said its policies on face masks will be strictly enforced — even if some customers are “angered” by it.

According to CEO Wade Miquelon, the store, which operates about 850 branches across 49 states, will now “respectfully encourage” masks regardless of local mandates, adding that it is “the right thing to do.”

“So, for the very few minority [of people] that don’t want to comply, I think those are probably customers that we’re willing to lose just because of the situation that we’re in,” Miquelon said, noting that the policy is necessary as coronavirus cases have since reached a “tipping point.”

UFCW President Marc Perrone, meanwhile, noted that it is not enough that stores put mask-wearing policies in place — they must find ways to actually enforce them.

“The key issue here is that a mandate is meaningless — meaningless — without enforcement,” Perrone said.

Perrone, in an earlier press call, noted that nearly 29,000 workers employed in retail and other related industries have either been exposed to the coronavirus, or are currently ill.

The human cost of the pandemic can’t be ignored, and it shouldn’t be hidden,” Perrone added, noting that retail establishments must also take it upon themselves to preserve and protect the health of their workers.

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