WASHINGTON - Supermarket workers are back in the middle of a national conversation about face masks.
Many supermarket chains have eased rules for wearing masks in stores since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on May 13 that fully vaccinated people no longer need to cover their faces indoors. Kroger Co. said it dropped mask requirements for fully vaccinated customers and employees starting Thursday, unless local rules dictate otherwise. Walmart Inc., Target Corp. and other grocery sellers have also lifted mask mandates for vaccinated people.
Face masks were embraced over the past year as one of the most effective ways to prevent the transmission of Covid-19, particularly between people in enclosed spaces. They have also been a point of contention and conflicts that often spilled into the purview of front-line workers. Now, some workers say the end of mask mandates has put them in a new position of having to explain their employers' mask policies, manage anxious shoppers and assess whether unmasked customers are indeed vaccinated, all while potentially risking their own health.
Elaine Lyon, a 60-year-old cashier at an Albertsons Cos.-owned Safeway store in Seattle, said she has seen more customers in her store without masks since the CDC's announcement. One customer told her he didn't have to wear a mask anymore. Another threatened her last weekend after she asked the customer to pull her mask up over her nose, Ms. Lyon said.
"One of the things not taken into account is how many people we see," Ms. Lyon said. "We have people at home who are not vaccinated."
She plans to wear a mask until all her family members are fully vaccinated; her son has received the first of two doses, she said, and her husband had his second dose less than two weeks ago. Her daughter, who visits once or twice a week, hasn't been vaccinated.
Albertsons said vaccinated employees and customers weren't required to wear masks starting on Friday. Face coverings will be required for employees and encouraged for customers who aren't vaccinated, Albertsons said.
Some 39% of people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to CDC data. President Biden is aiming to get at least one shot to 70% of the adult population by July 4, but hesitancy remains widespread.
Sharelle Claiborne, a deli clerk at a Kroger-owned Fred Meyer store in Burien, Wash., said she hasn't decided whether to get vaccinated. She said that she is worried about exposing herself and her family through her work at the store. "I feel anxious," the 31-year-old said.
Kroger said that employees need to provide proof of vaccination to work without masks and unvaccinated employees will be required to wear coverings. Dr. Marc Watkins, the company's chief medical officer, said Kroger will continue to work to protect employees and customers as the pandemic wanes. The chain has been offering $100 to employees who show proof of vaccination.
Masks have become a flashpoint at many supermarkets through the pandemic. Some customers refused to wear masks or to put them on properly, leaving store employees to apprehend shoppers and manage confrontations.
Workers said changing rules over masks are adding to that burden.
Robert Newell, president at the United Food Commercial Workers International Union's New York chapter, said the union is encouraging supermarkets to keep mask requirements in place because there's no easy way to tell whether someone is vaccinated.
"If I was working in a contained space and a person came up to me without a mask, I would ask, 'Can I see your card?' I don't have the right to ask, but I will," Mr. Newell said, referring to vaccination cards.
Ben Goshorn, an employee in the meat department at a Food Lion store in Charlotte, N.C., has been wearing a mask during his workweeks this past year. For the past six months, which included a national surge in cases, he has worn two masks to be doubly cautious. Food Lion, owned by Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV, said vaccinated employees and customers weren't required to wear masks starting May 20.
Mr. Goshorn, who is vaccinated, has concerns beyond customers. He said he would feel comfortable working without a mask if it was OK with his co-workers, but those conversations have proved awkward. Some people don't want to talk about their vaccination status.
"It's a charged conversation," he said.
Shoppers can be reluctant to share supermarket aisles with maskless people, too. Bobbi Barnett, a housing analyst for New York City, said she made extra trips to nearby grocery stores before the state dropped mask requirements for vaccinated people in many indoor settings on Wednesday.
She said she plans to shop more often at farmer's markets and higher-end shops like Zabar's that tend to be less crowded. Ms. Barnett, who is vaccinated, said she won't be going to the grocery store maskless anytime soon.
"I'm just going to wait a little bit,' she said.
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