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Most Big Chains Keep Masks Optional for Vaccinated Shoppers

Major retailers encourage customers to cover faces but have mandates for staff

Man shopping at store

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En español | Several of the nation’s largest retail chains have revised their mask policies in the wake of late-July guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should cover their faces in indoor public spaces, but those changes have primarily affected employees, not shoppers.

Major retailers such as Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Walgreens, CVS, Home Depot and Target allow fully inoculated customers — those who are two weeks past receiving their second Pfizer or Moderna dose or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — to shop mask-free as long as doing so does not violate state or local face-covering mandates.

Most big chains dropped mask mandates for vaccinated people after the CDC said in May that those who’d gotten the shots could safely forego face-covering in public places. The federal health agency revised its recommendations two months later as the coronavirus delta variant fueled a fresh COVID-19 surge, but stores have largely continued to encourage, but not require, vaccinated customers to mask up.

However, many stores have reinstituted face-covering mandates for their workers, regardless of vaccination status, especially in areas hard-hit by the delta spike. (You can use an interactive tool on the CDC’s website to check the transmission level in your county.)

The 10 largest retailers in the U.S., and most of the top 40, as ranked by the National Retail Federation (NRF) based on sales, implemented face-covering mandates in the spring and summer of 2020. Here are those companies’ current mask policies. Store numbers are from the NRF, as of 2020.


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Walmart

NRF rank: 1

U.S. stores: 5,253 (including Sam's Club)

The nation’s biggest retailer said July 30 that it is reimposing a mask rule for employees at Walmart and Sam's Club stores in areas rated by the CDC to be at substantial or high risk for COVID-19. The company ended face-covering requirements for fully vaccinated customers in May and said it will continue to encourage but not mandate that shoppers mask up. Walmart triggered a wave of retailers implementing mask rules when it did so in July 2020.

Amazon

NRF rank: 2

U.S. stores: 523

Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market, the e-commerce giant’s biggest brick-and-mortar offshoot, ended its mask mandate for fully vaccinated customers on May 19. Inoculated store employees can also go mask-free. “Unvaccinated customers, as well as those in areas where transmission is high, are asked to continue to wear masks indoors,” the grocery chain states on its COVID-19 response page. Whole Foods employees who do not provide proof of vaccination or who work in stores in areas with substantial or high transmission rates are required to wear face-coverings on the job, as are all workers in Amazon warehouses.

Kroger

NRF rank: 3

U.S. stores: 2,922

The country’s largest supermarket company, which includes Kroger, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer and other chains, lifted its mask mandate for fully vaccinated customers on May 20. Face coverings are still required for employees who are not inoculated or who work in in-store pharmacies and clinics. “In light of the Delta variant and updated CDC recommendations, we strongly encourage all individuals, including those who are vaccinated, to wear a mask when in our stores and facilities," the company said in recently updating its mask policy.

Home Depot

NRF rank: 4

U.S. stores: 1,974

Citing the spread of the delta variant, the home-improvement giant reinstituted a mask requirement Aug. 2 for "all associates, contractors and vendors" at its U.S. stores. "We’ll ask customers to wear masks while in our stores and continue to offer masks to those who don’t have one," the company said in an update on its COVID-19 response

Costco

NRF rank: 5

U.S. stores: 548

"Costco locations will follow the face mask regulations of the applicable state and local jurisdictions," the company says on its coronavirus updates page. The members-only warehouse club dropped its face-covering requirement in May, a year after it became the first major national retailer to institute a mask rule.

Walgreens

NRF rank: 6

U.S. stores: 8,760

The nation's biggest drugstore chain dropped its mask requirement for fully vaccinated customers May 19. “Customers who are not fully vaccinated are asked to continue wearing face coverings, and our team members will continue to wear them while working,” according to a company statement.

Target

NRF rank: 7

U.S. stores: 1,897

“Based on the CDC’s updated guidance, we require face coverings for our team members and strongly recommend face coverings for all guests in areas with substantial or high risk of transmission, as defined by the CDC,” the company says on its coronavirus response page. "Target continues to recommend face coverings for unvaccinated team members and guests at all stores across the country."

CVS

NRF rank: 8

U.S. stores: 9,813

The drugstore chain dropped mask rules for fully vaccinated patrons in May. “Face coverings are required for employees and customers who are not fully vaccinated," the company says on its COVID-19 resource page.

Lowe's

NRF rank: 9

U.S. stores: 1,734

"Lowe’s associates are required to wear masks indoors at all U.S. locations and while working in a customer’s home or business — regardless of vaccination status,: the home-improvement chain said in an Aug. 2 update on its COVID-19 measures. "Stores will have signs encouraging customers to wear masks, and free masks will continue to be available for customers who request them.”

Albertsons

NRF rank: 10

U.S. stores: 2,289

The parent company of Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco and other grocery chains requires workers to mask up in stores in areas with substantial or high rates of COVID-19 transmission. “Signage will be posted in-store to encourage our customers in these areas to follow the CDC’s mask guidance,” the company said in an Aug. 4 statement to AARP.

Apple Store

NRF rank: 11

U.S. stores: 271

Citing a company memo to employees, Bloomberg reports that the tech giant reinstituted a mask requirement for shoppers and staff at most of its U.S. retail outlets July 29. Apple's FAQs on store policies state that the company "follows local mandates and the CDC’s strong recommendation for masking indoors."

Publix

NRF rank: 13

U.S. stores: 1,521

The supermarket chain ended mask requirements for fully vaccinated shoppers in May. As of Aug. 2, employees are "required to wear face coverings over their noses and mouths while inside any Publix store," the company says in its coronavirus FAQs.

Best Buy

NRF rank: 14

U.S. stores: 975

The big-box electronics chain eliminated face-covering requirements for fully vaccinated customers and employees on May 18 but said it will continue to make masks available to any shopper or staffer who wants one.

Aldi

NRF rank: 15

U.S. stores: 2,619

The discount supermarket chain ended its mask mandate for fully vaccinated customers and employees in May. “Face coverings are required for unvaccinated customers and employees,” the company states on an updated web page on store safety measures.

Dollar General

NRF rank: 16

U.S. stores: 17,348

The discount chain eased its policy May 18, announcing on its COVID-19 response page that it no longer requires fully vaccinated customers, employees and vendors to wear masks. "All others are encouraged to continue wearing face coverings," the company said.

H-E-B

NRF rank: 17

U.S. stores: 348

The Texas grocery chain made masking optional for fully vaccinated customers and workers June 9. The company kept a full face-covering requirement in place for three months after its home state's mask mandate ended in March. 

TJX Companies

NRF rank: 18

U.S. stores: 3,264

TJX is the parent of T.J.Maxx and Marshalls, as well as outdoor store Sierra and home furnishings chain HomeGoods. Identical customer information pages on each brand’s website state that stores follow CDC guidance recommending that “all unvaccinated individuals wear face coverings indoors, and that vaccinated individuals wear face coverings in areas with substantial or high transmission of COVID-19.” Masks are mandatory for employees “in most locations for the time being.”

Dollar Tree

NRF rank: 19

U.S. stores: 15,375

The discount retailer, which also operates the Family Dollar chain, does not explicitly state a mask policy on its coronavirus response page but says it is "following the latest guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," apparently ending a face-covering mandate for shoppers that had been in place since August 2020.

Meijer

NRF rank: 21

U.S. stores: 256

The Midwestern superstore chain dropped its mask requirement for fully vaccinated shoppers on May 17. "We ask all customers who are not fully vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine to wear a mask while they shop at our stores and maintain social distancing," the company says on its COVID-19 information page.

Wakefern (ShopRite)

NRF rank: 22

U.S. stores: 359

The corporate parent of northeastern supermarkets ShopRite, Price Rite and the Fresh Grocer recommends in its FAQs on store safety that all customers and store staff mask up in areas with substantial or high rates of COVID transmission. The company requires unvaccinated employees to wear face-coverings in all stores and requests that shoppers who are not fully inoculated against COVID do the same.

Macy's

NRF rank: 24

U.S. stores: 733

Masks are “recommended but not required for vaccinated customers,” according to the department store's page on COVID-19 safety procedures. Store employees are provided with company-issued cloth masks and "may be required to wear them at all times, or may do so by choice," depending on state and local rules.

AT&T

NRF rank: 25

U.S. stores: 1,880

"Masks are required to be worn by employees, customers and visitors in our stores and will be provided to customers who need them,” the telecommunications company says in the consumers section of its COVID-19 response page.

Rite Aid

NRF rank: 26

U.S. stores: 2,447

The pharmacy chain updated its face-covering policy July 4 to allow fully vaccinated shoppers and staffers to unmask in stores. "As a healthcare provider, we continue to ask unvaccinated individuals, particularly those receiving any direct care from our pharmacists, to continue to wear a face covering while in our stores," the company says on its page on COVID-19 protocols.


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Verizon

NRF rank: 27

U.S. stores: 6,339

The company’s web page on store operations states that “non-vaccinated customers and employees are required to use a mask when visiting our stores,” and that masking may be required for fully vaccinated customers depending on state and local regulations.

BJ's Wholesale

NRF rank: 28

U.S. stores: 221

The membership warehouse club requires face-covering for unvaccinated customers and employees in all stores; for vaccinated staffers in areas with substantial or high rates of COVID transmission; and for all shoppers and workers in in-store optical departments, according to the company’s updated coronavirus FAQs.

Kohl's

NRF rank: 29

U.S. stores: 1,174

As of Aug. 3, the department store is requiring masks for employees in counties identified by the CDC as having high or substantial transmission risk and recommending face-covering for all shoppers in those areas, according to a company statement.

PetSmart

NRF rank: 30

U.S. stores: 1,556

"In accordance with CDC guidance, face coverings are no longer required for fully vaccinated individuals," except as required by state or local regulations, the pet-supply chain said in a May 26 update on its COVID-19 response. "We ask those who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing face coverings in our locations."

Menards

NRF rank: 31

U.S. stores: 314

“Vaccinated persons are recommended to wear a mask. We would deeply appreciate it if you would,” the Midwestern home improvement chain states on its COVID-19 policy page, updated to reflect the July 27 CDC guidance. “Not-vaccinated persons do need to wear a mask. We deeply appreciate you doing so.”

Ross

NRF rank: 32

U.S. stores: 1,859

The off-price department store started “requiring all customers and associates to wear a face covering” in August 2020 and continues to do so, according to its store safety guidelines.

Hy-Vee

NRF rank: 34

U.S. stores: 297

In May, the Midwestern supermarket dropped mask requirements for shoppers and staffers who are fully vaccinated. Face-covering is still required for unvaccinated employees and is “strongly recommended” for customers who are not fully vaccinated.

O’Reilly Auto Parts

NRF rank: 36

U.S. stores: 5,594

Unvaccinated employees are required to mask up, and “fully vaccinated team members will gladly wear face masks during your visit upon your request,” the national automotive chain said in a June 1 notice to customers posted on its website. “We strongly encourage and appreciate [mask] use in all of our stores by anyone who has not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Gap

NRF rank: 37

U.S. stores: 2,338

The operator of Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and other apparel chains dropped mask mandates for fully vaccinated customers May 21 and for inoculated employees June 18. “We recommend that customers who are not fully vaccinated wear masks in our stores,” and face-covering is still required for unvaccinated workers, the company said in a June 18 policy update and reiterated in an Aug. 3 statement.

Wegmans

NRF rank: 40

U.S. stores: 104

“After reviewing the updated guidance from the CDC and state and local health departments, we strongly encourage all customers, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a face mask while shopping with us,” the East Coast grocery chain announced Aug. 3. “All employees are required to wear a face mask in our stores.”

Editor’s note: This list is limited to retailers currently ranked among the nation’s 40 largest by the NRF. Some firms in the top 40 are not included because they do not have physical stores or did not publicly announce a company-wide mask order for customers at any time during the pandemic. Some retailers listed in prior versions of this article are no longer included because they have dropped out of the top 40, due to declining sales or changes in how the NRF compiles its list. If you have questions about mask policies at a store not listed here, check its website or contact its corporate office.

Andy Markowitz is a contributing writer and editor for AARP, covering Social Security and fraud. He is a former editor of The Prague Post and Baltimore City Paper.

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