Walmart to require employees put on masks in shops in high-risk counties

People wearing protective masks shop in a Walmart store on May 18, 2021 in Hallandale Beach, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Walmart said Friday that it will begin requiring masks for store workers in high-risk counties in the U.S. as determined by the latest CDC rankings, regardless of vaccine status and effective immediately.

Shoppers are strongly encouraged to wear masks in stores, but they will not be required to, the retailer said in a memo sent to staff.

Walmart said it will be adding back signage near the entrances of its stores and warehouse clubs to remind customers about the CDC’s revised guidance. The company will review store mask rules on a weekly basis from here.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a fresh recommendation that calls for wearing face masks again in areas of the country where the Covid-19 virus is spreading the most rapidly. That covers about two-thirds of all counties in the United States.

The decision came roughly two months after the CDC in May said vaccinated individuals could go without masks. That’s when Walmart also stopped requiring masks for vaccinated workers and customers. The delta variant, however, has driven cases back up and led the agency to reevaluate.

Walmart also said it’s doubling the incentive for staff to get a Covid vaccine, to $150. Employees who have already received the $75 incentive will receive another $75 in their paycheck dated Aug. 19, the company said Friday.

Walmart will soon implement a new process for verification of vaccine status for U.S. employees. It plans to share more details about this process in the future.

The big-box retailer’s shift in policy comes just a day after Apple began requiring both vaccinated and unvaccinated customers, as well as staff members, to wear masks in many of its shops across the United States.

Other retail businesses including Macy’s and Gap have told CNBC they are reviewing the new CDC guidance and could issue updated rules in the coming days.

The current policy of Grocery chain Kroger requires unvaccinated workers to wear masks and requests that unvaccinated customers put on masks in stores, a spokesperson said.

Publix Super Markets, which operates more than 1,100 stores mostly across the Southeast, is now requiring employees to wear masks inside all locations regardless of their vaccination status.

The reversal from the CDC has put retailers in a tricky position, again. For consumers, the county-by-county rules can be confusing, especially for those who are already vaccinated and feel as if they don’t need to put a mask back on. And last year, when major retail chains first initiated mask mandates, store workers were often the ones who ended policing bad behavior in stores.

The CDC has now warned House lawmakers that the delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox, has a longer transmission window than the original Covid-19 strain and may make older people sicker, even if they’ve been fully vaccinated.

“We know vaccinations are our solution to drive change,” Walmart said in the memo sent to all U.S. employees. “We are urging you to get vaccinated and want to see many more of you vaccinated.”

The company further emphasized that business travel should be limited to “business-critical” travel only, at this time.

Walmart is the largest retailer in the United States, with around 4,700 U.S. stores, and it’s the biggest private employer, with about 1.6 million U.S. workers.

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