Most Big Chains Keep Masks Optional for Vaccinated Shoppers
Major retailers encourage customers to cover faces but have mandates for staff
En español | Several of the nation’s largest retail chains 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 and omicron surges. (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.
NRF rank: 1
U.S. stores: 5,253 (including Sam's Club)
The company’s most recent announcement on store safety, dated Dec. 1, reiterates a requirement imposed four months earlier that employees at Walmart and Sam's Club stores in areas rated by the CDC wear masks on duty. The nation’s largest retailer ended face-covering requirements for fully vaccinated customers in May.
NRF rank: 2
U.S. stores: 523
Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market, the e-commerce giant’s biggest brick-and-mortar offshoot, mandates masks only for “customers and team members in our stores with a local or state government mandate requiring them,” according to updated guidance on its COVID-19 response page.
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 required for store employees. “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.
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.
NRF rank: 5
U.S. stores: 548
The members-only warehouse club “strongly recommends” customers wear masks inside stores but requires it only where state or local face-covering mandates apply, according to a Dec. 29 update to its coronavirus response page. Costco lifted its its chainwide mask requirement in May 2021, a year after it became the first major national retailer to institute a mask rule.
NRF rank: 6
U.S. stores: 8,760
In August, the nation's biggest drugstore chain reinstated a mask requirement for all employees, regardless of vaccination status. The company encourages customers to mask up in stores but has not required it since May 2021.
NRF rank: 7
U.S. stores: 1,897
The retailer dropped a mask mandate for store employees Feb. 21. “As COVID-19 cases continue to decline across the country, Target will not require our U.S. team members or guests to wear masks, as local regulations allow,” the company says on its updated coronavirus FAQs.
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.
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.”
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.
NRF rank: 11
U.S. stores: 271
Apple's FAQs on store policies state that masks "may be required for customers, depending on local mandates and conditions." Web pages for individual Apple Stores, accessible through the tech giant’s store locator, say whether masks are optional or mandatory for shoppers. Store staff are required to mask up.
NRF rank: 13
U.S. stores: 1,521
The supermarket chain does not mandate masks for shoppers. As of Feb. 14, fully vaccinated store employees can work mask-free “unless required for their job duties or by a state or local order or ordinance,” according to the company’s updated coronavirus FAQs.
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.
NRF rank: 15
U.S. stores: 2,619
The discount supermarket chain does not mandate masking for fully vaccinated people except as required by state or local regulations. “We strongly encourage those who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing a face covering to help protect others and keep our stores safe,” the company says on its web page on store safety measures.
NRF rank: 16
U.S. stores: 17,348
Citing CDC guidance, the discount chain says on its COVID-19 response page that it “will not require fully-vaccinated employees, customers and vendors to wear facial coverings or masks” except as required by state or local orders. “All others are encouraged to continue wearing face coverings."
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
NRF rank: 25
U.S. stores: 1,880
Store rules follow local policies, according to the consumers section of the telecommunications giant's COVID-19 response page, which states, "In according with certain local mandates, masks are required to be worn by employees, customers and visitors in our stores and will be provided to customers who need them.”
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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NRF rank: 27
U.S. stores: 6,339
The company’s web page on store operations states that it “follows state and local requirements regarding mask use. You may be required to wear a mask even if you are fully vaccinated.”
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.
NRF rank: 29
U.S. stores: 1,174
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 an Aug. 10 company statement.
NRF rank: 30
U.S. stores: 1,556
Face-covering is “strongly recommended” for customers. Employees are required to mask up inside stores, regardless of vaccination status, the according to the pet-supply chain’s COVID-19 response page.
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. “Not-vaccinated persons do need to wear a mask. We deeply appreciate you doing so.”
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.
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.”
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 unvaccinated staff are required to mask up when working, the company says in its store-safety page.
NRF rank: 40
U.S. stores: 104
“All employees are required to wear a face mask in our stores, even if not mandated at the state or local level,” the East Coast grocery chain announced Dec. 21. Mandates for customers are limited to locations covered by state or local mask orders.
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.