With wave of mask requirements, Walmart and other retailers face challenge: How to enforce the rules

Key Points
  • A wave of major retailers have announced mask requirements this week, including Walmart, Kroger, Target, Best Buy, CVS Health and Lowe's.
  • Retailers will take different approaches to enforce the new policies, from stationing an employee by the door to providing complimentary masks.
  • "The key issue here is that a mandate in meaningless — meaningless — without enforcement," said Marc Perrone, the president of a major grocery worker union.
A woman wearing a face mask walks past a sign informing customers that face coverings are required in front of a Walmart store in Washington, DC on July 15, 2020.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

A wave of U.S. companies said this week that they'll require customers to wear masks or face coverings in their stores. That includes some of the biggest names in retail: Walmart, Kroger, Target, Best Buy, CVS Health, Home Depot and Lowe's.

Now those companies and their employees will face another challenge: getting customers to comply.

Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, said starting Monday, an employee dubbed a "health ambassador" will wear a black polo uniform and stand by the door. Some retailers, such as Home Depot and Target, said they'll provide complimentary masks for customers who do not have them. Others, such as CVS Health and Kroger, said they'll use signs or store announcements to remind customers about the policy. And many encouraged customers to shop in other ways, such as through curbside pickup, if they prefer not to put on a mask or can't wear one for medical reasons.

Even so, enforcement may be a challenge. It's already been a headache for retailers as they've juggled local and state requirements — and in some cases, it's escalated into hostile confrontations between employees and shoppers.

At least one company, CVS, acknowledged that it will rely on customers to obey the new requirement.

"To be clear, we're not asking our store employees to play the role of enforcer," Chief Operating Officer Jon Roberts said in a statement. "What we are asking is that customers help protect themselves and those around them by listening to the experts and heeding the call to wear a face covering."

Nearly 7 out of 10 grocery workers said their employers are not enforcing mask mandates in the stores, according to a survey of 4,000 grocery workers by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

"The key issue here is that a mandate in meaningless — meaningless — without enforcement," said Marc Perrone, the union's president.

The union represents more than 900,000 grocery workers at well-known chains like Kroger, Stop & Shop and Albertsons. It also includes workers at nursing homes, meatpacking and food processing plants, and apparel retailers, like Macy's and H&M.

In a call with reporters on Friday, Perrone said employers must step up in other ways, too. He called for the reinstatement of hazard pay for grocery workers who face greater risk as coronavirus cases rise in a majority of states. He said workers also need the higher pay as they juggle additional expenses, such as child care, and the pandemic jeopardizes whether their children can return to school.

And he said front-line workers think the pandemic will get more severe. About 75% of those surveyed said they believe there will be a second wave that's worse in the fall.

More than 278 of the union's members have died, including 93 grocery workers, as of Friday, Perrone said. Nearly 30,000 of its workers have gotten sick or been exposed to Covid-19, he said.

The union represents less than one-third of all U.S. grocery workers. It has called on companies, including nonunion ones like Walmart and Amazon, to disclose the number of their workers who have gotten sick and died from Covid-19. It was joined on Friday's call by Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who both expressed support for hazard pay.

For months, public health officials have urged mask wearing and social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus, particularly in public places. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies said face coverings prevent people who are sick — including those who do not have symptoms — from spreading the virus to others.

However, retailers have largely been reluctant to police customers. Certain factors have started to force their hand: Some local and state governments required face coverings in public places. Workers got sick or raised safety concerns. And customers had new expectations for safety measures during the pandemic, from hand sanitizer stations to employees wearing masks and standing behind plexiglas.

An escalating outbreak from nearly coast to coast has raised concerns that businesses could be forced to limit operations or shut down again.

Kroger, the largest U.S. supermarket operator, pointed to the spike in Covid-19 cases across the U.S. when announcing its policy this week. It takes effect July 22. 

"We are taking this extra step now because we recognize additional precautions are needed to protect our country," said Kristal Howard, the grocer's head of corporate communications.

The CDC wants policymakers to consider face mask mandates—And this is why
The CDC wants policymakers to consider face mask mandates—And this is why