Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, says it will require face masks at all U.S. stores starting Monday.
The Arkansas-based retailer announced the mandate in a Wednesday release, citing the recent resurgence in U.S. COVID-19 cases and the need for consistency across its operations. Walmart said roughly 3,250 of its 5,000 namesake stores and Sam’s Club locations already comply with public health mandates in their respective markets.
“We know some people have differing opinions on this topic,” according to a news release from Dacona Smith and Lance de la Rosa, the chief operating officers of Walmart and Sam’s Club, respectively. “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 [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”
The world’s biggest retail trade group lauded the move and expressed hope it will mark a “tipping point” for the industry. Currently, only a handful of national retailers, including Costco, Apple and Best Buy, have blanket policies requiring masks at all of their stores.
“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,” the National Retail Federation trade said in a statement.
“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.”
Mixed messaging from local and state governments, and varying business policies, have politicized mask use despite evidence they can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed at least 133,000 Americans and is closing in on 3.5 million confirmed cases. The CDC, which originally downplayed their importance, now calls face coverings “a critical preventive measure” and says they should be worn in public.
The move comes amid a surge in infections, particularly in the South and West, that have overwhelmed hospitals and raised fears or more outbreaks this fall and winter. Economists say nationwide mask requirements could prevent a return to widespread shutdowns and further economic turmoil. Last week, a Goldman Sachs analysis estimated that a nationwide mask requirement could avert more shutdowns and the potential loss of $1 trillion in U.S. gross domestic product.
Walmart said it will station “health ambassadors” near store entrances to remind shoppers without face coverings to comply with the new policy. The company said it will use the next five days to train employees, post signs and prepare shoppers for the new policy.
“While we’re certainly not the first business to require face coverings, we know this is a simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities,” Walmart said in its news release. “According to the CDC, face coverings help decrease the spread of COVID-19, and because the virus can be spread by people who don’t have symptoms and don’t know they are infected, it’s critically important for everyone to wear a face covering in public and social distance.”
The patchwork approach to masks and the political tempest surrounding them has left retail workers vulnerable as they enforce mask policies. Some workers say they have been told they cannot refuse service to maskless customers, even if local laws require it. In recent weeks, retail workers have been punched in the face, suffered broken limbs and, in the case of a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan, killed while trying to enforce mask requirements.