An abrupt relaxation of mask guidelines has upset supermarket and other store staff as they try to figure out what the new environment means for their own safety and relationship with customers.
Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain, was one of the latest to announce that workers and customers will no longer be allowed to wear masks from Thursday in states that no longer have mandates. Other companies that have made similar changes include Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Macy’s, Costco, Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, and Target, as per the Centers for Disease Control’s updated guidelines.
Some workers used social media to cheer, but many others protested. Some do not trust customers – or their employees – to truthfully assess their vaccination status, as most companies do not ask for evidence. Others fear that they will be judged for wearing their own masks, although their reasons for doing so are different.
William Stratford, 29, won’t be fully vaccinated until next month, but buyers and employees of the hardware store he works at had walked in without a mask before the CDC released the latest guidance.
He has complained to management and is having lunch in his car to avoid maskless people in the break room. He gets looks from buyers and employees.
“I know people have negative opinions about me,” said Stratford of the Valley Center, California, who asked that the business he works in not be named out of fear of reprisals. “It has become a point of contention in the workplace.”
The CDC said last week that fully vaccinated people – those two weeks after the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine – can stop wearing masks outdoors and in most indoor spaces. The guidelines also require that people who are not fully vaccinated continue to wear masks indoors and that everyone wear them in crowded indoor spaces such as buses, airplanes, hospitals, prisons and shelters for the homeless.
As a result, retailers, grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and other employers have struggled to decide whether and how to adjust their own policies. Some companies, including Trader Joe’s and Macy’s, allow vaccinated customers to drop their masks, but not employees. In the meantime, some grocery chains like Safeway are letting their mask requirements pass.
Some workers fear that they will face the consequences of a confusing jumble of guidelines. John Bartlett, a meat manager at a Safeway in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, said he was personally relieved that his business still needs masks for everyone right now, but fears the guidelines will make dealing with anti-mask customers even more difficult.
“We have customers who literally berate us,” said Bartlett, recalling an incident where a man stormed out of the store shouting profanity after Bartlett asked him to wear a mask. “The country should only have one policy. That would make it easier because we wouldn’t be dealing with customers who are so rude and terrible to us. “
The Biden administration had come under pressure to relax restrictions on vaccinated Americans, in part to show the benefits of a shot at a time when the demand for vaccines was starting to surge. Companies also try to motivate their employees to get vaccinated with measures ranging from bonus payments to vaccination campaigns on site.
It’s unclear whether the relaxed mask restrictions will motivate unvaccinated workers to get their shot now. Some may feel they are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, but others believe they can enjoy the same privileges as vaccinated workers because no one is checking.
Amazon is one of the few companies that requires employees to prove they received the shot before going without a mask and asking them to upload a picture of their vaccination card by mid-June. At Walmart, workers who do not wear masks are required to confirm they are vaccinated by completing a daily questionnaire, although proof is not required. Still, the company will have some insight into the people who have been vaccinated, as employees will have to provide documentation in order to receive a $ 75 bonus for those who receive the vaccinations.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial International Union, said about 40% of workers who took part in a recent union survey said they had been vaccinated. He admitted that some many never get the right footage, but said the CDC and corporations should have waited a few months to give people more time before changing indoor recruitment policies.
Workplace experts warn that a two-tier mask policy can create resentment and suspicion if not properly implemented.
Kristin White, an occupational safety attorney with Fisher & Phillips LLP law firm in Denver, Colorado, believes employers should require workers to provide proof of vaccination and says many fail to realize they are legally allowed to do so.
“The honor system carries a higher risk,” said White, who advised companies on masks during the pandemic.
Asking workers why they wear masks or not raises privacy concerns.
“Some of these workers may be wearing masks because they are disabled and cannot be vaccinated. Maybe someone is wearing a vaccinated mask, but they are more comfortable wearing a mask, ”said White.
She recommends that her clients have a written policy for employees so as not to ask their coworkers why they are wearing face covering. She also says workers should be trained without telling each other.
For Bill Easton, it’s about customers. Easton has worked as a cashier at a Safeway in Aurora, Colorado for 27 years, and he already feels helpless when customers defy his store’s masking guidelines. He fears they will encourage each other more now that mask guidelines are relaxed across the country, although they remain in place in his business.
On the flip side, some of his friendlier, long-time customers announce they are fully vaccinated and give him a big hug. Easton is also vaccinated and although he appreciates the affection, it makes him nervous.
“You are wondering, do you really have your COVID shot?” he said.