The end of mask mandates in Texas and Mississippi has created a dilemma for businesses: Keep such safety rules in place to protect against Covid-19 spread, as leading health officials advise, or follow the two states' decisions and loosen restrictions.
Leading US grocery chains, pharmacies, retailers and auto manufacturers, including Target, Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, Best Buy, Macy's JCPenney, Toyota, GM and others, say they will continue to require mask wearing at their stores and facilities by both employees and customers. There are exceptions, however, and some business advocates are concerned that the end of these states' mask mandates will create new challenges for companies and their workers.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves both announced Tuesday that their states will lift mask requirements that have been in place for months to protect against Covid-19. The announcements come as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to drop across the country and more Americans get vaccinated. However, health experts say relaxing restrictions now could lead to another surge, especially with variants spreading.
'We will continue to enforce our COVID safety practices we've had in place since we returned to work last spring,' GM spokesperson Patrick Morrissey said in an email. The company has 13,500 employees in Texas. 'This will ensure we adequately protect our employees and continue to meet OSHA workplace protection standards.'
Kroger 'will continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the [Covid-19] vaccine,' a spokesperson said in an email.
Not all chains are taking this approach.
Texas grocer H-E-B has never had a mask requirement for its customers, instead deferring to local and state ordinances. Now that the state will no longer require masks in public settings, H-E-B will follow that direction except in areas where masks are mandated by local officials.
'H-E-B will still require all our [employees] and vendors to wear masks while at work, and we urge all customers to please wear a mask when in our stores,' Dya Campos, a spokesperson for H-E-B, said in an email.
Albertsons also said it will require its workers in Texas to wear masks, but is changing the policy for customers in the state.
'We will encourage face coverings, but will not mandate, and will be updating our signage accordingly,' said Christine Wilcox, spokesperson for Albertsons, in an email.
Mask wearing has been a contentious issue throughout the pandemic. Retail workers, restaurant staff and other frontline workers have often been thrust into the role of carrying out their employers' mask rules with customers, sometimes with violent consequences. In the early months of the pandemic, a Family Dollar security officer was shot and killed after telling a customer to wear a mask and in Los Angeles, a Target security guard was left with a broken arm from a fight with two unmasked customers.
Jason Brewer, spokesperson for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents top retailers, said ending state mask mandates is a 'mistake' and 'premature.' It will put retail chains and their workers in a vulnerable position of enforcing mask rules once again, he warned.
'Going backwards on safety measures will unfairly put retail employees back in the role of enforcing guidelines still recommended by the CDC and other public health advocates,' Brewer said in an email. 'It could also jeopardize the safety of pharmacies and grocers that are gearing up as vaccination centers.'
The Texas Restaurant Association, which represents restaurants in the state, also worries that the end of the mask mandate could expose workers to confrontations with customers who refuse to wear one.
'It's absolutely a concern,' Kelsey Erickson Streufert, vice president of government relations, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. 'Earlier in the pandemic, we did hear several stories of customers becoming angry and potentially even threatening with restaurant employees who were, frankly, just trying to do their jobs and keep people safe.'
The group will work with restaurant owners and employees on strategies to communicate mask policies to customers, Erickson Streufert said, and encourage restaurants to post signs at the entrance to their dining areas alerting customers of their mask policies.
CNN's Amir Vera, Vanessa Yurkevich and Danielle Wiener-Bronner contributed to this article.