Major Retailers Cite Concerns Over Employee Safety; Say They Won’t Enforce Mask Wearing Policies

Liz Carey

New York, NY ( – Citing concerns over violence towards their employees, major retailers have said they won’t prohibit customers from entering their stores without a mask, despite newly issued requirements that customers do so.

Big box retailers like Walmart, Lowe’s, Walgreens, Home Depot and CVS made waves in mid-July for requiring customers to wear a mask while shopping in their stores.

Since then however, violent encounters between company employees policing the policies and customers who refuse to wear masks has prompted the stores to say they will no longer enforce the requirements.

Instead, the Retail Industry Leaders Association has asked governors to step up and issues mask policies. In a letter to the National Governors Association Chair MD Gov. Larry Hogan, and Vice Chair NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the retail association said the current system wasn’t working.

“The patchwork of local ordinances many retailers faced earlier this year made it incredibly difficult to focus on the right safety protocols to implement. While well-intended at the time, conflicts stemming from local law enforcement agencies applying their own interpretations of conflicting state and local mandates forced retailers to shift valuable time and resources away from store operations,” the group said in its letter earlier this month. “We strongly urge governors to continue issuing concise statewide orders that create clarity for all businesses, local government and law enforcement.”

Reports and videos of violent incidents at restaurants and stores have peppered the news in recent months. In May, a security guard at a Michigan Family Dollar store was shot and killed after telling a customer they needed to wear a mask. Other incidents at Costco, Target, Red Lobster, Walmart and other stores have gone viral over the past three months.

“Despite compliance from the majority of Americans, retailers are alarmed with the instances of hostility and violence front-line employees are experiencing by a vocal minority of customers who are under the misguided impression that wearing a mask is a violation of their civil liberties. Wearing a mask is not about fear and it certainly should not reflect one’s politics. Wearing a mask is about respecting others and preventing the spread of a deadly disease,” the retail association said in its letter. “This should no longer be up for debate.”

Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the enforcement of mask requirements should not be up to employees.

“Either security or management needs to tell people that they must wear a face mask in order to be served. It’s no different than wearing shoes or a shirt,” Appelbaum told CNN.

Walmart said they will station “health ambassadors” at the entrance of stores to remind shoppers about the mask policy as they enter.

But ambassadors will not directly confront customers, or prevent them from entering the stores, Walmart said.

“With every requirement there are exceptions that have been established to avoid escalating the situation and putting our associates in harm’s way,” a Walmart representative said. “Our goal is to keep associates from a physical confrontation in the stores.”

The company said it would be adding signs about its policies, with the exemption for small children and those with health conditions or religious beliefs. It would also be making announcements about those policies over their store loudspeakers.

Lowe’s said it will be adding signs at its stores, requesting customers to wear masks, while making masks free to customers who need them.

“We will not ask our associates to put their safety at risk by confronting customers about wearing masks,” a Lowe’s representative told CNN.

Home Depot also said it would be required to wear masks, beginning July 22, exempting small children or those with valid medical conditions. Prior to July 22, about 85 percent of Home Depot stores were requiring facial masks in compliance with local and state regulations, and all Home Depot associates were required to wear masks.

“We appreciate all of our associates who have been working so hard to serve our customers with the essential products they need throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and we want to thank our customers for their cooperation as we work to protect everyone in our stores,” said Ann-Marie Campbell, executive vice president of stores for The Home Depot in a statement.

However, Home Depot said it will not ask its employees to block a customer’s entrance to the store, or confront a customer, similar to their shoplifting policy.

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