Store mask policies: Best Buy, Lowe's, Walgreens, ALDI say masks optional for vaccinated customers

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased mask-wearing guidance last week for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to ditch their face coverings in most indoor and outdoor settings in crowds. But despite this news, some major retailers have said they’ll keep their mask policies in place for now. 

Other companies have said they’re re-evaluating those policies in response to the relaxed guidelines, while a handful of major retailers say masks will now be optional for fully vaccinated shoppers. 

CDC officials said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors, essentially leaving it up to people to do the right thing — as there is no easy way to determine who has been vaccinated and who hasn't.

Lowe's, the home-improvement retailer, announced on May 19 it would align its mask policy with CDC guidance, which removes the necessity for vaccinated persons to wear masks.

Kohl's, the retailer, announced it will no longer require fully vaccinated customers to wear facial coverings on May 17, unless mandated by state or local governments. Unvaccinated customers and employees are strongly encouraged to wear masks.

Best Buy, the electronics retailer, announced on May 18 that fully vaccinated customers are no longer required to wear face masks in Best Buy stores, unless mandated by local or state laws.

Vaccinated employees will also be free of mask requirements unless they're working inside a customer's home.

ALDI, the grocery chain, said fully vaccinated customers will no longer have to wear face coverings, unless mandated by state or local law. This policy takes effect May 18.

Beginning May 26, fully vaccinated employees will also no longer be required to wear masks.

Unvaccinated customers are still required to wear a mask in ALDI stores.

Walgreens, the pharmacy chain, relaxed its mask policy on May 19. Fully vaccinated customers are no longer required to wear masks in Walgreens stores, unless mandated by state or local law. Customers who have not been vaccinated are asked to continue wearing masks.

Walgreens employees will continue wearing face coverings.

Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, changed course Wednesday and said it will no longer require fully vaccinated customers and most fully vaccinated associates to wear a mask. The company had previously said it would still require face coverings.

The Cincinnati-based company operates several other regional supermarket chains in 35 states, including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Ralphs and King Soopers.

Kroger said the updated policy will take effect May 20 and extends to all facilities, including stores, distribution centers, plants and offices unless otherwise required by state or local law. Pharmacy and clinic associates must still wear masks regardless.

Kroger is also offering associates a $100 one-time bonus for receiving the recommended doses of the vaccine.

Wegmans, a grocery store chain in the Northeast, also said Wednesday that fully vaccinated customers are no longer required to wear a face covering in stores, except where mandated at the state or local level.

Target announced on Monday that it will no longer require fully vaccinated guests and team members to wear face coverings in stores, except where it’s required by local ordinances.

"Face coverings will continue to be strongly recommended for guests and team members who are not fully vaccinated and we’ll continue our increased safety and cleaning measures, including social distancing, throughout our stores," the company said.

CVS Health also announced on Monday that fully vaccinated customers are no longer required to wear face coverings inside, unless it is mandated by state or local regulations. CVS said employees are still required to wear masks while at work.

Meijer, a supercenter chain located throughout the Midwest, also said Monday that fully-vaccinated shoppers no longer need to wear a mask in the store "where allowed under state and local law." It added in a statement that non-vaccinated customers must continue to wear a face covering, as well as employees.

Costco announced on Friday that it will allow customers who are fully vaccinated to enter stores without a mask only in locations where state or local jurisdiction does not have a mask mandate. The company said it will also not require proof of vaccination.

The company said face coverings will be required, however, in health care settings including the company’s pharmacy, optical and hearing aid sections.

Publix, the supermarket chain, also dropped face-covering mandates for its stores, saying the rule is optional for fully vaccinated customers. "Publix will no longer require fully vaccinated associates or customers to wear face coverings, unless required by a state or local order or ordinance, beginning May 15," a company press release read.

Trader Joe’s on Friday, updated its website with a statement that encourages shoppers to follow guidance from health officials. This includes, "as appropriate, CDC guidelines that advise customers who are fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks while shopping."

Starbucks announced it will also no longer require facial coverings for fully vaccinated customers unless they're required by local laws. The new policy takes effect May 17. Restrooms will generally remain temporarily closed to customers in the stores where cafe seating is unavailable, the coffee chain said in a news release.

Walmart also said Friday that customers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear a mask in its stores in light of the agency’s guidance.

"Beginning today, vaccinated customers and members are welcome to shop without a mask, and we will continue to request that non-vaccinated customers and members wear face coverings in our stores and clubs. We will update the signage in our facilities to reflect this," Walmart said in a statement.

Home Depot said customers and employees who are fully vaccinated will not be required to wear masks in stores except where it’s mandated locally. "Masks are still encouraged for those who aren’t fully vaccinated, and we’ll keep safety measures in place like enhanced cleaning and social distancing," a representative said.

Some said the updated guidelines could lead to confusion and warned that employees at stores, restaurants, bars and other businesses could be left exposed to the coronavirus from customers and could be forced into the unwanted role of "vaccination police."

"Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures," Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, told the Associated Press. "Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?"

Thursday’s updated CDC guidance came as many states and communities have already been lifting mask mandates amid improving virus numbers and more Americans getting shots. But even in states that have dropped mask mandates, stores and other businesses can still require face coverings if they want.

b553496f-Re-opening Continues Across Densely Populated New York And New Jersey Areas

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 25: A woman wearing a mask shops at an outdoor supermarket on the Upper West Side as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on August 25, 2020 in New York

President Joe Biden, who gave a Rose Garden address heralding the new guidance after it was shared, acknowledged on Monday that some vaccinated Americans may continue to choose to wear masks.

"Some people may want to continue to wear masks, even if they’re fully vaccinated. That’s a decision they can make," he said. "Some businesses may want to continue to require wearing masks. Let’s all be kind and respectful to one another as we come out of this pandemic and respect those who want to continue wearing masks."

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The CDC and the Biden administration had faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people in part to highlight the benefits of the shots and motivate other people to get inoculated.

To date, more than 157 million Americans, over 47% of the population, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 123 million are fully vaccinated, according to CDC figures. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are as strongly protective in real-world use as they were in earlier studies and that they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of the virus are spreading.

The more people continue to get vaccinated, the faster infections will drop — and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate enough to escape vaccines, she stressed in the announcement Thursday. She urged everyone 12 and older who is not yet vaccinated to sign up.

Walensky added that while some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, it’s rare. She cited evidence that those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others. If people who are vaccinated do develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get tested, she said.

There are some caveats. Walensky encouraged people who have weak immune systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, to talk with their doctors before shedding their masks. That’s because of continued uncertainty about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they do normal, healthy ones.

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When pressed about the quick turnaround on the agency's stance on mask-wearing, Walensky later said the agency was not giving in to pressure but instead needed time to review evolving science.

Walensky cautioned that even with the new guidelines, it was still too early to "declare victory," but added that she was "cautiously optimistic" about the pandemic.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.