The giant retailers separately announced the new policies on Wednesday as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations rise in the many states and raise the risk of more government-mandated shutdowns. The companies join a growing list of retailers that require masks, including Best Buy, Costco and Apple.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies recommend wearing face coverings as a way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, especially when physical distancing isn't possible. Face coverings can also limit the spread by people who don't have symptoms, yet can spread the virus to other people.
Many retailers, including Walmart and Kroger, have dealt with a patchwork approach of state and local rules about face coverings. Without a national mandate, their employees have often had to police mask use in their stores.
Walmart U.S. Chief Operating Officer Dacona Smith and Sam's Club Chief Operating Officer Lance de la Rosa said in a post on the company's website that the majority of its more than 5,000 stores and clubs — about 65% — are in areas where there's already some kind of government requirement for face coverings.
They said the new requirement at Walmart and Sam's Club stores, which takes effect July 20, will keep customers and employees safe and "help bring consistency across stores and clubs" across its national footprint.
"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," they said in the post.
Kroger owns nearly 2,800 stores across 35 states and Washington, D.C. under its own name and other banners, such as Fred Meyer and Fry's. The company said it will require customers to wear masks or face coverings starting July 22.
"We are taking this extra step now because we recognize additional precautions are needed to protect our country," company spokeswoman Kristal Howard said.
For some employees, enforcing mask requirements — whether a government mandate or a company policy — has been a challenge. In some cases, it has led to confrontations between employees and customers and viral social media videos.
Best Buy began requiring masks on Wednesday. The big-box retailer originally encouraged, but did not require them. The company's CEO, Corie Barry, said in May that the company has provided training on how to de-escalate tense situations as employees have served customers who are "scared, frustrated and occasionally hostile."
"It can range from customers being frustrated that they can't just walk into a store and get what they need to customers potentially not wanting to wear masks," she said on a call with reporters at the time.
In the website post, Smith and de la Rosa said Walmart will post signs, train employees and create a new role to enforce the policy. The designated employees, called health ambassadors, will get special training and will stand near the door. That person will remind customers about the mask requirement when they walk inside. All stores will use a single entrance.
Health ambassadors will be identified with a black polo shirt, they said. He or she "will work with those who show up at a store without a face covering to find a solution that works for everyone," according to the post.
At Sam's Club locations, an employee will also stand by the door and remind customers about the requirement. Complimentary masks will be provided, or masks will be available for purchase.