Shoppers and diners are likely to see few, if any, immediate changes to company policies regarding social distancing and wearing masks when going to the grocery store or eating out, despite new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the UK Public health field.
“All in all, nothing is likely to happen,” said Joel Bines, global co-leader of the retail practice for consulting firm AlixPartners. “Most retailers will choose to continue doing what they did.”
The CDC issued updated guidelines on Thursday that, in most cases, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask or stay 6 feet away. It marked a turning point in the Covid pandemic and paved the way for a degree of normalcy in both outdoor and indoor gatherings. The decision is made because nearly 59% of all adults in the US have received at least one dose of vaccine by Thursday.
However, the calculation is different for large retailers. Many, including Target, Home Depot, Gap, and Ulta Beauty, said they would maintain their pandemic precautions and continue to monitor developments over the coming weeks and months. Some said in company statements that they were still reviewing the guidelines. Others stressed the importance of safety, especially since some customers and employees have not received a Covid vaccination and children under the age of 12 are not eligible for a vaccination.
“We are aware of the updated CDC guidelines released today and are actively reviewing the impact of these updated guidelines on our guests and employees, with health and safety as our top priority,” said Ulta in a company statement.
Trader Joe broke the trend. In a statement on its website, the grocer urged shoppers to follow guidelines from health authorities – including the CDC guidelines that don’t require customers who are fully vaccinated to wear masks when shopping. However, the company did not reveal how to check customers’ vaccination status and said it would maintain other measures such as additional cleaning and wellness checks for staff.
Starbucks and Kroger didn’t have an immediate response to the updated CDC guidelines, but they did have notes on mask requirements in stores and on their websites.
In statements, leaders of the National Retail Federation and Retail Industry Leaders Association said the safety of customers and employees will continue to be a priority.
Lisa LaBruno, Senior Executive Vice President, Retail Stores and Innovation at RILA, encouraged people to continue to obey the rules for private businesses.
“We urge all retail customers and guests to adhere to a store’s safety protocols, including wearing a mask and social distancing,” she said. “Frontline employees deserve that respect. Retailers are encouraging non-masking customers to shop online or through roadside pick-ups.”
Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry for the National Restaurant Association, said operators must work with state and local regulators to ensure they are complying with other existing mandates. Lynch said the trading group won’t update its operating guidelines for Covid-19 immediately, but the CDC’s recommendation is encouraging as the industry looks to recover from the crisis.
According to Bines of AlixPartners, retailers and restaurants face a major operational challenge: they have no “visible evidence” of who is vaccinated or not when someone walks through the door. He said most don’t want to check customers’ vaccine status as it may seem political or intrusive.
They would also need to balance other factors, such as mask mandates that differ in different states and locations, and health concerns for customers and their own workforce.
“The Covid protocols are unlikely to unwind quickly – the [social distancing] Stickers, the plexiglass and so on – regardless of what the CDC put out and said today, because most retailers are going to take the “better safe than sorry” approach to deal with it, “he said.
He said there is one change that consumers might see: retailers who may switch to softer language on signs on their shop doors or in the aisles. Instead of saying that masks are required, companies could change the wording to include more nuances – for example, out of respect for other customers or out of kindness to employees, wearing masks.
This shift could also ease tensions with clients who opposed mandates and may be more open to masks out of courtesy, he said.
“It’s a little easier for them now because it’s not that polarized,” he said. “It’s not that black and white. It is now, ‘We want to encourage the wearing of masks for the benefit of our employees and for mutual benefit while we are in this uncertain time.'”
Some companies – mostly outdoor venues oriented companies – have dropped mask requirements or say they may soon. Hersheypark said in a tweet Thursday that face covering and social distancing are not required for fully vaccinated guests. The Pennsylvania amusement park followed on Friday morning with a message that it is up to customers to enforce the guidelines for themselves.
“At this point, we will be relying on our guests to strictly follow guidelines based on their vaccination status,” it said.
But not everyone was happy about the decision. One of the largest food unions in the country, the United Food and Commercial Workers, said again that frontline retail workers will find themselves in a difficult position as they interact with numerous strangers and help enforce the rules.
“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but key workers are still being forced to play masked police for shoppers who are not vaccinated and who refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” said Marc Perrone, the international president of the Union, in a statement. “Shall you become the vaccination police now?”
– CNBC’s Amelia Lucas, Sarah Whitten, and Nadine El-Bawab contributed to this story.