Store of the Future   //   June 14, 2021

‘The no mask policy is already giving me anxiety’: 4 retail workers on changing mask regulations

Last month, the CDC announced the loosening of its mask guidance, saying people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus don’t need to wear a mask indoors unless local laws and regulations demanded it. It’s led to increasing confusion — and more difficult retail working environment.

Since the announcement, retailers have been left to their own devices to come up with new mask guidelines for employees and customers. Now, most retailers — including Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s and Costco — have said that vaccinated customers no longer have to wear masks in stores, unless local regulations still require it. But, they’re not requiring customers to provide proof of vaccination. 

For the retail employees tasked to enforce policies, the new rules present a confusing terrain. While vaccination efforts continue across the country, these employees have little to no control over which unmasked customers can enter their workplace.

Modern Retail spoke to four people currently working in retail, on the condition of anonymity, about how they feel about these new guidelines.

“It seems irresponsible on my part to stop wearing it”

By the end of May, the mask mandate was lifted in our store and we stopped checking for masks entirely. We replaced the “wear a mask” signs with “a mask is highly recommended for individuals who are not vaccinated.” For us employees, we are allegedly supposed to show a member of HR our vaccination card to prove that we’d been vaccinated, and therefore are allowed to work without a mask on. However, I’ve had conversations with four separate co-workers that were not wearing masks, assuming that they were vaccinated — only for them to admit to me that they either weren’t planning to get it or aren’t fully vaccinated yet. So if the small group of people I trust to be wearing their masks aren’t being honest, who’s to say the droves of people coming into our store aren’t also lying? 

I’m currently fully vaccinated, and I still don’t have any need or desire to stop wearing my mask. I come into contact with so many people daily — masked and unmasked — that it seems irresponsible on my part to stop wearing it. To my knowledge, a vaccinated person still has a chance to catch or spread Covid, so thinking of the bigger picture, it’s a small inconvenience for me to continue to wear it. I’ve had it on for over a year now, what’s a few more months? Where I live, only about 50% of the population is vaccinated. The whole thing just seems a little bit early! I really hope we didn’t unmask too early and that I’m just being paranoid.

 – A big-box store worker in Massachusetts

“I don’t know of any store checking vaccination status”

I’m a product vendor, so I’m not tied to any one store location or one type of retail channel. I can say that across my few hundred individual locations around southern New England, I don’t know of any store checking vaccination status. It’s been mostly a non-issue, where they’re relying on the honor system, for better or worse. I spoke with store management — both top level and department level — and not a single one wants to have to deal with any sort of enforcement now that masking is optional. This seems to be more fatigue on store staff’s end, as opposed to an official corporate policy, in which they don’t want to deal with customer confrontations. 

From what I’ve seen, the only thing management seems to be able to control is their store staff and vendors; They are required to show proof of vaccine status before working with a mask off. I still choose to wear a mask when I visit a store on my rounds. Not out of fear, but as a way to make store staff and customers comfortable.

 –  A retail vendor in the Northeast

“It just puts us employees in an awkward position”

Since the policy was lifted last month, our store is still “recommending” that our customers wear a mask. We offer them one when they walk in. But if they put up a fight, we don’t say anything and let them come in and shop. Since the new policy took place, I’ve had to work at the entrance, where I’m cleaning carts and checking in customers without asking for vaccine proof. The no mask policy is already giving me anxiety. For example, when I work at the register, where I’m in very close contact with hundreds of people. I’ve had unmasked customers sneeze and hand me money, which is just gross — Covid or not. 

I recently had one unmasked customer come up to me and ask: “Why am I the odd man out here? I’m fully vaccinated and fine, so I don’t understand why everyone else is wearing a mask.” All I could say to her is that it’s a personal preference. I’ve even had customers ask me if I’m vaccinated, which is strange. It just puts us employees in an awkward position to be letting people slide in at their word. Obviously we hope people do the right thing and only come in unmasked if they’re fully vaccinated, but there really is no way to know.

 – An off-price store employee on the East Coast

“It was already hard to deal with customers who didn’t want to wear a mask — even when it was mandatory”

It makes me uneasy that customers don’t have to wear a mask anymore, because there was a period where every week coworkers would call out for contracting coronavirus from a stranger. It was already hard to deal with customers who didn’t want to wear a mask, even when it was mandatory. My feeling is that those will likely be the people who refuse the vaccine. 

We’re also located inside a big mall, so the only time anyone [customers] really gets in trouble anymore is if someone creates a big altercation. That’s when security gets called in. Technically, our store still requires all shoppers to wear masks, but the enforcement by management has been loose. Our company is European and the CEO put out a specific policy that everyone still needs masks to shop in there — even if it’s not mandatory in the store’s specific area. That makes me feel a little better, but is also irritating to constantly have to explain to customers. So I’ve mostly just let it go.

 – A fast fashion chain employee in the New York area