NEW YORK — Walmart will require customers to wear face coverings at all of its namesake and Sam's Club stores, making it the largest retailer to introduce such a policy that has otherwise proven difficult to enforce without state and federal requirements.
The company said Wednesday that the policy will go into effect on Monday to allow time to inform customers. Currently, about 65% of its more than 5,000 stores and clubs are located in areas where there is already some form of government mandate on face coverings.
Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart joins a growing but still small list of retailers to require masks at all of its stores, filling the role of states and the federal government that have failed to issue such mandates on an issue that has been highly politicized by President Donald Trump and many of his ardent supporters.
Given Walmart's clout as the largest retailer in the U.S., its decision is expected to push others to issue similar mandates. In fact, hours after its announcement, supermarket chain Kroger Co. said it would follow suit starting July 22.
"We are taking this extra step now because we recognize additional precautions are needed to protect our country," Kroger said in a statement.
Last week, Starbucks announced that customers who visit its company-owned café locations in the U.S. will be required to wear face coverings. The policies at Starbucks and Best Buy went into effect Wednesday.
Only a handful of major retailers, including teen clothing chain American Eagle Outfitters and Apple, has a mask mandate for customers for all of its stores. Costco Wholesale Club was one of the first major retailers to require face coverings for customers at all of its stores. The policy went into effect in early May.
The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, said in a statement that it hopes Walmart's move will be a "tipping point in this public health debate."
Retailers had been hesitant to issue chain-wide mandates for fear of angering some customers. They also didn't want to have their workers play the role of enforcers of the protocols. It was already hard enough to get some customers to comply even in the states that had the mandates. However, the recent surge of new virus cases - particularly in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona - has left them with no choice, retail experts say.
"I think Walmart's decision will give cover to other retailers to require masks," said Michael J. Hicks, an economist at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. "I applaud Walmart and others for stepping in."
Bryan Eshelman, a managing director in the retail practice at consultancy AlixPartners, noted that retailers needed to step in to reduce their own health risks and that having a virus case is disruptive.
"It is a business risk that they need to manage for the safety of employees and customers," he said.
Eshelman added that he believes making shoppers comply with the mask protocols will be easier now that wearing masks are becoming more of the norm.
Still, Walmart is taking no chances, making sure to have a new strategy in place to enforce the mask protocols. It said Wednesday that it will create the role of health ambassador at its Walmart stores and will station them near the entrance to remind customers without masks of its new requirements. These workers, who will be wearing black polo shirts, will receive special training to "help make the process as smooth as possible for customers."
Walmart said that it's currently working on different options for customers who don't show up with a face mask.
As for Sam's Club, employees at the entrance will follow the same process with its members, politely reminding them of its requirements to wear a face covering when shopping. Complimentary masks will be provided if the member doesn't have one or a member can buy one at the club.
Retailers have been challenged with striking a balance between keeping shoppers safe while making them feel comfortable.
Last week, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents Walmart, Best Buy and other major chains, publicized a letter it sent to state governors to mandate store customers to wear face coverings. It said the hodgepodge of rules around the country have created confusion for shoppers and that has led to conflict between customers and workers trying to enforce store rules.
The National Governors Association said last week that its members are discussing the letter and others like it from different retail groups.
Social media is full of videos capturing clashes between those who are asked to wear masks, and employees who are under orders to make sure people wear them.
About half of U.S. states require masks in public places, according to the RILA. In recent days, Kentucky and Michigan have passed nationwide mandates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been consistent about recommending people cover their mouth and nose when around others to help reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. But at the beginning of the lockdowns, it had discouraged people who were not sick from buying masks for fear of taking away what was then a limited supply for health care workers.
"We know some people have differing opinions on this topic," wrote Dacona Smith, chief operating officer at Walmart U.S. and Lance de la Rosa, chief operating officer at Sam's Club in a blog posted Wednesday. "We also recognize the role we can play to help protect the health and well-being of the communities we serve by following the evolving guidance of health officials like the CDC."
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