By Robbie Whelan and Sarah Nassauer
American companies began to rethink their requirements for face
masks after federal health regulators relaxed their guidelines this
week, and on Friday Walmart Inc. made the first big move to bend to
the new view.
The U.S.'s largest private employer said it would no longer
require vaccinated workers and shoppers to wear masks in stores and
warehouses outside of municipalities that require it. Walmart's new
policy for its 1.6 million U.S. workers goes into effect May 18,
the company said, while vaccinated customers could shop maskless
That made the country's largest retailer by revenue an early
mover in response to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention's new guidance. Executives in sectors ranging from autos
to grocers said they were still wrestling with how to respond to
the new guidelines, which they note conflicts in many cases with
state, local and other protocols specific to certain
Car makers General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. said they
are sticking with existing policies while awaiting guidance from
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has
jurisdiction over their workplaces and still requires face
coverings and social distancing. The agency didn't immediately
update its guidance based on the CDC announcement. OSHA
representatives didn't immediately respond to requests for
Some national retailers said they were reviewing the CDC's
changes. Kroger Co., the nation's biggest supermarket chain, said
it would continue requiring masks and encouraging social
distancing. The company said it is asking employees for feedback as
it reviews safety practices and the latest CDC guidance.
Another grocer, Trader Joe's, said it would drop its mask
requirements for vaccinated customers. "We encourage customers to
follow the guidance of health officials," the company posted on
Twitter. It won't require proof of vaccination for those who forgo
masks, a spokesperson said.
The CDC said Thursday that fully vaccinated people don't need to
wear a mask or physically distance during outdoor or indoor
activities, large or small, in most settings. The agency said it
made the revisions based on the latest science indicating that
being fully vaccinated cuts the risk of getting infected and
spreading the virus to others, in addition to preventing severe
disease and death.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group, said the
CDC's mask announcement creates ambiguity since it doesn't align
with state and local orders. The group asked customers who decline
to wear masks to shop online or use curbside pickup services.
"Retailers will continue to prioritize the safety of their team
members first, as they've done throughout the pandemic," said Lisa
LaBruno, a senior vice president at the group. "We urge all retail
customers and guests to follow a store's safety protocols including
wearing a mask and social distancing."
Erik Nordstrom, chief executive of Nordstrom Inc., one of the
largest department-store chains in the U.S., said in an interview
Thursday that Nordstrom's stores would continue to follow CDC
guidance on masking, but that the company was in no rush to change
its mask requirement for both employees and customers. The
retailer's priority, he said, is helping both customers and
employees feel safe.
"Up until the last month or two, pretty much every jurisdiction
has had a mask mandate, too," Mr. Nordstrom said in the interview,
which was part of The Wall Street Journal's Future of Everything
Festival. "We've stayed with requiring masks for our employees and
customers. And we'll follow the CDC. So, when they indicate that
that's not necessarily the thing to do, we'll follow suit."
At Walmart, to go maskless, workers have to say they are
vaccinated during the health screenings each worker takes to start
a shift, the company said. The retailer continues to review whether
masks should be worn for certain jobs, said a companywide email
Friday, and workers can continue to wear masks if they want to.
Walmart won't ask shoppers to offer proof that they have been
vaccinated, instead relying on customers' word, a spokesman
The relaxed mandate could allow bigger crowds to gather. Walt
Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Chapek said he expects to see an
immediate increase in the number of people allowed inside domestic
theme parks following the CDC move. "Today's guidance," he said
Thursday, "is very big news for us, particularly if anyone has been
in Florida in the middle of summer with a mask on."
Food makers Conagra Brands Inc., General Mills Inc. and Kellogg
Co. said they are continuing to require masks and social distancing
at their factories even as employees get vaccinated, as food
manufacturers have to follow a range of industry-specific
The Consumer Brands Association, a trade group for food and
other grocery manufacturers, said it has asked the CDC for more
details on how its latest mask guidance affects businesses such as
Betsy Booren, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for
the group, said that the revised guidance seemed directed mainly at
consumers in their daily lives but that food factories, where
workers are often crowded together and can't always distance,
present different circumstances. Ms. Booren said that while she is
encouraged by the latest CDC guidance and what it might mean for
returning to normal, she hesitates to advise manufacturers to
change their practices.
Restaurants face complicated decisions in part because they have
employees and customers who could be unvaccinated, and operators
can't easily distinguish who has been inoculated and who hasn't.
Many also face state and local regulations that require
mask-wearing on their premises.
While restaurants want to return to normal so they can get more
business, they also want diners to feel safe enough to return, said
the National Restaurant Association, which has decided not to
update its masking guidance immediately.
Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry for
the association, said he is "encouraged by the CDC's decision and
the potential it has to help move the restaurant industry closer to
being fully reopened."
Paul Mangiamele, chief executive of Legendary Brands LLC, a
Dallas company whose franchisees include roughly 80 Bennigan's pubs
and Steak and Ale restaurants in the U.S., said he expects most of
his franchisees to remove masking restrictions in the coming days.
But the company will let individual restaurants decide how to
verify vaccination status. He expects most restaurants to make
masking optional for employees and to benefit from a flood of
"We want to react immediately to the guidance that's provided,
but do that with common sense and safety," Mr. Mangiamele said.
In Philadelphia, McGillan's Olde Ale House, a 150-year-old Irish
pub near the city's downtown, is operating at 50% capacity and
requiring masks and social distancing for all patrons and
employees, except while eating and drinking. Owner Chris Mullins is
waiting for the city's guidance before lifting the pub's mask
requirement. Local health officials have said they hope to remove
all capacity and distancing precautions by June 11.
"Everyone's excited, and they want the extra money and the
increased business," Mr. Mullins said. "But the potential for every
night being New Year's Eve, with five deep at the bar and people
screaming in your face for a beer, is still a little jarring to
some of my employees, too."
Small businesses aren't certain how to respond to the CDC's new
mask guidance, especially when it conflicts with OSHA's and other
guidelines, said Kevin Kuhlman, head of government relations for
the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a trade group
representing 300,000 mostly small, private companies.
Many small businesses hope state and local governments endorse
the CDC's view on masks soon. Meanwhile, were OSHA to issue any new
emergency guidelines that conflict with the CDC's advice, "that
would really confuse small businesses," Mr. Kuhlman said. "Our
biggest fear is getting something brand new from OSHA that's even
Dropping mask requirements -- along with widespread vaccine
availability and falling case rates -- would help bring more
white-collar workers back to offices, said Kenneth Caplan, global
co-head of real estate at Blackstone Group Inc. As an owner of
office space, he said he has noticed more talk of businesses
bringing employees back.
"It's another positive step, but it's part of a continuum of a
lot of steps toward reopening," Mr. Caplan said.
--Christina Rogers, Jaewon Kang, Annie Gasparro and Craig Karmin
contributed to this article.
Write to Robbie Whelan at firstname.lastname@example.org and Sarah
Nassauer at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 14, 2021 19:46 ET (23:46 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.