“Should retailers continue to require associates and customers to wear masks?” by George Anderson with commentary by 38 retail experts via Retail Wire

“Should retailers continue to require associates and customers to wear masks?” by George Anderson with commentary by 38 retail experts via Retail Wire

Americans who have received full doses of COVID-19 vaccines (one or two shots, depending on the manufacturer) and have allowed at least two weeks to pass will now be free to go about their daily activities without wearing a mask. This applies both to outdoor as well as most indoor activities, with the exception of airline travel, public transport and certain other mandated situations. Everyone else needs to keep wearing masks, particularly in indoor environments. Those are the basic rules laid out in new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which provided the caveat that citizens should continue to follow local and/or state rules as they apply to mask wearing.

The guidance did not specifically address businesses, although the takeaways seem clear for public-facing companies. Masks should continue to be worn by all that have not been vaccinated even when state or local rules say otherwise. That means, in practical terms, that unless a retailer has a way to verify people have been vaccinated before they enter stores, it is prudent that they continue to enforce mask wearing rules. This seems to be particularly true in locations where COVID-19 disinformation is prevalent and vaccination rates are low.

Business owners and employers are being cautioned by workplace experts not to fling open the doors and throw away their masks just yet.

Kevin Troutman, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Houston, told SHRM Online, that employers should wait until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) updates its workplace safety guidance before making any changes.

The New York Times reports that some states have lifted mandates following the CDC’s announcement and others are holding off. Governors in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia all said they were reviewing the guidance. Others in Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon and Pennsylvania have begun to lift mandates.

Businesses want clarity so it’s no surprise that many are not doing a happy dance after the CDC’s announcement.

Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president, retail operations and innovation at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said yesterday that the CDC had created ambiguity and “conflicting positions put retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations.”

“We urge all retail customers and guests to follow a store’s safety protocols including wearing a mask and social distancing,” said Ms. Bruno. “Frontline workers deserve this respect. Retailers encourage customers that do not want to wear a mask to shop online or via curbside pickup offerings.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How would you advise retailers to address mask wearing and social distancing in stores at this point in time? What are the implications for retailers that lift mask requirements in places where such restrictions are unpopular and COVID-19 vaccine rates are low?

The Discussion!

38 Comments on “Should retailers continue to require associates and customers to wear masks?”

Mark Ryski
Founder, CEO & Author, HeadCount Corporation

I would urge frontline retail workers to continue to follow current safety protocols. No doubt these workers are tired of wearing masks and the other hygiene protocols, but health/safety is still the most important issue. The lifting mask requirements, while welcome by all, will make it virtually impossible for retailers to enforce any kind of mask regulation, since it will be impossible to police or verify if shoppers have been vaccinated. This is also why frontline workers should still wear masks.

Shep Hyken
Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

The mask (actually no-mask) announcement just came out. It will take some time to figure this out. My first thought is safety first. What protocols are in place to ensure the safety, and at the same time, confidence of our customers? How do you know who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t? This creates another step that some customers might find offensive. For now, you make a decision and stay with it. Train employees how to manage the decision. If you require masks, have them ready to give away to the ones who aren’t carrying. If you don’t require masks, be prepared to possibly lose customers who are uncomfortable not knowing who is shopping next to them.

Jeff Weidauer
Principal, SSR Retail LLC

The recent announcement by the CDC makes it very difficult for retailers to continue the requirement for masks for customers.

Dave Wendland
Vice President, Strategic RelationsHamacher Resource Group

Although a “return to normal” is anxiously welcome by all, without a means of identifying who is vaccinated and who is not, I suspect retailers will continue to enforce a mask rule and social distancing for the time being. Perhaps in another 60-90 days — presuming the rate of infection continues to decline and the potential for spikes because of careless behavior is thwarted — retailers could revisit this.

Bottom line: I would personally encourage retailers to err on the side of caution and continue to enforce a mask rule.

Jennifer Bartashus
Senior Analyst, Bloomberg Intelligence

Retailers have played an important role in helping to set and maintain safety standards during the pandemic. It would be an unfair burden on them to have to try to figure out who can/can’t wear masks in stores. In the interest of protecting the safety of employees and customers, mask policies should stay in place until the bulk of the population is vaccinated or herd immunity is achieved.

Dick Seesel
Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, assuming the CDC is correct, the unvaccinated are only putting themselves at risk — not those who are fully vaccinated. So some of the risk-bearing becomes a matter of personal responsibility. (Unfortunately, there seems to be a political correlation between mask resistance and vaccine resistance, with no tools to verify the fully vaccinated on the horizon.)

On the other hand, there are still populations at risk through no fault of their own — especially children under 12. Until we collectively get closer to the “herd immunity” goal, it’s probably best for retailers to exercise caution.

Dave Wendland
Vice President, Strategic RelationsHamacher Resource Group

Well stated, Dick Seesel. I agree 100 percent.

Chuck Ehredt
CEO, Currency Alliance

Retailers and their employees should comply with laws and health recommendations. Beyond that, some customers may not care if employees are wearing masks, but since some will care, I think retailers should require their employees to wear masks to make the shopping environment as safe and welcoming as possible until there is no remaining threat.

Dave Bruno
Director, Retail Market Insights, Aptos

The CDC did us absolutely no favors with this new mask guidance. I don’t understand why they felt the need to rush this decision, and in doing so they have put store teams in a very difficult position. Many people, regardless of vaccination status, will immediately abandon their masks, and local laws and store policies will become extremely difficult to enforce in light of the national CDC guidance. I would strongly encourage retailers to require store associates to continue wearing their masks and to maintain mask policies for customers, even if enforcement will now become more challenging.

Gene Detroyer
Professor, International Business, Guizhou University of Finance & Economics; Executive Director, Global Commerce Education

Exactly, Dave. I am sure by the evening news we will hear about confrontations in stores regarding mask wearing. The announcement, without better guidance, is just bizarre!


What do you expect from this CDC? Not many weeks ago the head of it was talking like the grim reaper and pretending to cry about being so upset over the COVID and how dire things would get and now they are lifting the requirements.

I too find it very odd they made this announcement when they did, with rather limited guidance, and it sort of seemed to be rushed and came out of nowhere. I get they are happy with vaccination rates and that seems to be their main reasoning for this but what happened to all those new deadly COVID variants that were heading here like the one from India that was supposed to make it so dire for us? Either they know something we don’t (like they have sensationalized this whole thing beyond belief and the jig is about to be up), or they are being terribly reckless here.

Bob Phibbs
President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

I fully believe in the science and still wear a mask though fully vaccinated. It is important to note we are in the waning days of the pandemic. It is not 2020. I think there is an element from some employees I’ve encountered lately who seem to have a chip on their shoulder and make themselves into mask police with zero tolerance. It’s as if they are looking for a confrontation. To help with that, if it were me, I would have already paid associates an $100 bonus for having gotten vaccinated so they wouldn’t be concerned as much about personal safety.


I am fortunate in that I have not seen a mask confrontation in months now. In my immediate area, everyone is wearing masks (not always properly … but at least mouth is covered). I have been into some stores out of town especially in multiple counties in rural Northern California where I see more customers here and there without a mask on and nobody cares or does anything about it and it has been that way this whole time.

Gene Detroyer
Professor, International Business, Guizhou University of Finance & Economics; Executive Director, Global Commerce Education

We have discussed several times the issues that retail workers faced when customers refused to wear masks. Some of the confrontations were ugly. Now the situation may become more confrontational. How do we know who is vaccinated and who is not? To me, for retailers, the only answer is “no mask, no service.”

Gary Sankary
Retail Industry Strategy, Esri

The discussion about wearing masks has just become intensely complicated. The CDC announcement is based on science, and I do not want to get into a discussion of questioning science. If we are to be consistent with the stand that the industry took at the beginning of the pandemic to err on the side of safety, we should continue to do so now. More important than masks I believe is to require that employees are vaccinated. Sadly however any enforcement of mask wearing for customers will be impossible to enforce now. I hate the idea that front line retail workers will take the brunt of the anti-mask crowd. But if they are vaccinated and the data the CDC cites is accurate, they should be fine.

Lee Peterson
EVP Thought Leadership, Marketing, WD Partners

I smell a political rabbit hole! But here goes — if anyone thinks COVID-19 is over, they’re nuts. It’s a global issue and right now, two-thirds of the world is on fire. I would urge retailers and anyone with common sense to stay vigilant. If you’re vaccinated and your close ones are vaccinated it’s obviously a different level of vigilance, but only half the U.S. has had ONE shot, the other half — nothing. Anyway, I could care less if you’re red or blue, here’s a fact: 136 people a day have been diagnosed with the bug in my county this week — so throw the masks out? C’mon.


COVID is over as far as most of the US population is concerned. It doesn’t matter that cases are growing in your area, evidently those new super contagious more deadly variances like from India that are supposedly coming out way no longer matter either.

This announcement about dropping the masks I find very suspicious why they did it, but they did it. So that is that.

I think they may have sensed the public has had enough….

Rich Kizer
Principal, KIZER & BENDER Speaking

I am in total agreement with Lisa LaBruno’s comments. Frontline workers do deserve the respect of the business and management on this issue. I don’t think it will be long until we all will be comfortable with a no-masks-needed statement, but this current somewhat arbitrary, somewhat foggy consensus makes it hard for management.

Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets

Businesses in my area (grocery stores, gyms, etc) have been polling their customers and members and most have said they will still be wearing their masks – so the businesses will continue to require masks to enter the stores. It is still too difficult to determine who is vaccinated and who is not and most customers and members still feel safer with masks and the businesses are siding with public opinion.

Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient

We will probably see instances where aggressive mask wearers confront people who do not wear masks demanding they show proof of vaccination. The U.S. has reached 50 percent vaccination rates. While it is not at herd immunity levels, people who wanted/needed to get a vaccine are getting that without too many delays. The stress on the healthcare system is way down. I think the time has come to ease towards normality, as opposed to hunkering down.

While there is always a very small risk of renewed infections like the horrors India is experiencing, the dynamics are totally different.

I think the CDC should unequivocally say: “Vaccine passports make your life easy. If you are vaccinated, you can participate without a mask. ” This couching and giving various exceptions is actually muddling the message and doesn’t do much to encourage fence-sitters or procrastinators to get vaccinated.

Kathleen Fischer
Director of Retail Marketing, enVista

I would suggest continued mask-wearing and social distancing for everyone’s safety. However it’s becoming more difficult to try to regulate this and frontline workers shouldn’t be the ones monitoring and enforcing these requirements. This may end up needing to be reviewed on a store-by-store basis based on the local environment.

Neil Saunders
Managing Director, GlobalData

It seems prudent to continue mask wearing in retail stores, at least for now. However this is going to be much more difficult to enforce after the latest guidelines. That said, I want masks to go eventually; I do not think their compulsory usage should become a permanent feature forevermore. However I would certainly consider wearing one in the future should I have a cold or respiratory illness. It seems considerate to do so. Equally, others may feel wearing them brings health and safety benefits. This voluntary arrangement is the best way forward once the pandemic is well and truly over.

Gene Detroyer
Professor, International Business, Guizhou University of Finance & Economics; Executive Director, Global Commerce Education

To your comment, “I would certainly consider wearing one in the future should I have a cold or respiratory illness.”…

The first time I taught in China, two students came into class with masks on. It struck me as strange as I always thought of masks as personal protection. After class, I asked the girls about the masks. They said they had colds. When people are sick there they wear masks so no one else gets sick. Exploring further, that behavior is the norm.

John Karolefski
Editor-in-Chief, CPGmatters

The CDC’s recommendations have been slightly confusing, to say the least. However
until herd immunity is reached in America, I would advise grocers to continue their
mask policy for in-store employees and for all shoppers. Some people won’t like it, but that’s the prudent policy for now.

Georganne Bender
Principal, KIZER & BENDER Speaking

I think that everyone should continue to wear masks in stores, at least for a while longer. None of the people/agencies we are supposed to look to for guidance can make up their minds. A few weeks ago we’re being told to double mask and now all of a sudden it’s OK not to wear one. It’s almost like the CDC flipped a switch and said, “The pandemic is over, take off your masks.” Who knows what to believe anymore?

Retailers are smart not to react instantaneously. It’s still important to keep people who visit and work in your store safe. I plan to keep my mask on a little while longer, right now the message is still too convoluted.

Trevor Sumner
CEO, Perch Interactive

Retailers should ease in. Safety is critical even as just perception. With a larger percentage of the population still unvaccinated, keeping masks on for staff is good for business in the near-term. Retailers should avoid creating policies that look at local vaccination and disease rates, because they will be debated as arbitrary. OSHA and other organizations need to make strong statements on policies that deflect the judgement onto them so retailers are not caught in the middle. Until then, keep the masks on.

Al McClain
CEO, Co-Founder, RetailWire

The horse is out of the barn on this one here in Florida and there is no going back. Customers were walking around businesses without masks before the CDC announcement because of our governor. Shortly, everywhere, it will be everyone for themselves and I guess that’s kind of how it’s been for awhile. My advice to individuals is to get vaccinated, and wear a mask if you want to protect yourself further. And, we should all hope that new variants aren’t able to work their way around the vaccines. Retailers can’t police this.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph’s University

I agree that businesses need to wait to see what the state and local governments do. To err on the safe side when the mask mandates for vaccinated individuals take effect, they may need to change their signage and internet postings to “Individuals who have not been fully vaccinated need to wear a mask to enter.” Another potential profit opportunity for sign makers (LOL). Seriously, the risk is not to the vaccinated individual unless they have mitigating medical issues. The risk is to the unvaccinated entering the establishment, unmasked. In reality, at this time, we are using the honor system. However I am reminded of my days as a university professor that the honor system meant my honor and the students’ system (LOL).

Ananda Chakravarty
Retail Thought Leader

From a purely business POV, customers who are unvaccinated and yet concerned about their safety will be marginalized, reducing a small piece of store business. The elderly and customers with conditions who even if vaccinated may still feel they are at higher risk and will avoid stores with no-mask policies. Lastly, I wouldn’t want to be the store manager that gets a call for contract tracing everyone in my store because some employee was diagnosed with COVID-19 and realized that despite some vaccinations, we potentially spread the disease to the hundreds who visited our store- mask or no mask. Any superspreader event would be a PR disaster. Businesses have been cautious so far, a little bit more caution is probably worth it.

Joel Rubinson
President, Rubinson Partners, Inc.

I think retailers need to follow guidelines that come from the CDC but can be superseded by state rules. Whatever the governing guidelines are, I think that there will be a phase where retailers have their associates wear masks but where they no longer mandate that customers must wear them. Err on the side of caution regarding associates though for both safety and also to send a signal. Remember, even when the guidelines say masks are no longer required, many customers will still wear them because they are still afraid of getting sick. Associates wearing masks will make them feel comfortable in their personal decision.

Gene Detroyer
Professor, International Business, Guizhou University of Finance & Economics; Executive Director, Global Commerce Education

I am sitting at my coffee place writing on Retail Wire. I just saw my first confrontation.
“Please put your mask up.”
“But the CDC says we don’t have to wear them anymore.”
“But if you want to be in here, you must wear a mask.”
“OK.” The customer put the mask up.

Craig Sundstrom
CFO, Weisner Steel

“Thanks Gene…and now back to our Live-Eye-Five newsroom!” I’m sure you were relieved the exchange was civil. (I’d be able to hear you exhale — even out here in CA — but you’ve got a mask on … right?)

Mel Kleiman
President, Humetrics

This is a problem you are dammed if you do require a mask and dammed if you don’t. You can put the sign on the door, but how are you going to enforce it based on the new guideline present by the government?


As one who works as a public-facing employee who relies on the full faces of customers showing for maximum success in transacting business, but who has had such interactions crippled for the past year-plus; and as one who has worked in similar retail positions for many years; I feel uniquely qualified to respond to this new-but-still-changing situation. But before I lay out “my” simple solution, let’s consider two important aspects of retail that are more ingrained now than at any point in the past: 1) many states’ OSHAs have instituted very strict guidelines for employers to safeguard the physical and mental health and well-being of their employees (yes, many states are lax, too); and 2) retailers allow customers mostly free reign when it comes to assortment, payment options, return policies, and of criticizing-banishing certain items for sale; and as such, these businesses have almost always sided with guests over staff.

Craig Sundstrom
CFO, Weisner Steel

I sometimes wonder who votes in the poll(s), because often the results don’t match the comments (though the downvotes do!).

The feedback makes for discouraging … even sad, reading; at times like these I’m glad I’m only a retail observer.

Venky Ramesh
AVP, Capgemini, Consumer Products, Retail & Distribution

Even though over 50% of the population has been fully vaccinated, the virus is still very active across many parts of the world. It is better to err on the side of caution and continue to wear masks in public than to take the risk of going through another wave of the pandemic.

Carol Spieckerman
President, Spieckerman Retail

Thought to weigh in after reading some comments and hearing the ongoing media coverage around confusion. Although the announcement does feel like whiplash, the CDC head clearly outlined three points to support the decision: 1. Vaccines are working against COVID. 2. Vaccines are working against variants. 3. Vaccines are preventing transmission. None of it 100% foolproof, but close enough to warrant the update. The confusion comes from having so many “messengers” with different ways of articulating where things are. That doesn’t solve for the retail enforcement issues, but the reasoning for the announcement was laid out.

Rich Duprey
Contributor, The Motley Fool

If retail employees have been vaccinated, they should not be forced to wear masks. I’m not even sure those who haven’t been vaccinated should wear them anymore. States that have completely dropped all mandates like Florida, which hasn’t had a mandate in place for well over a month now, are still seeing the number of cases decline.

I’d also be hard put to call the CDC’s actions “rushed.” It has often been wrong about its predictions while Dr. Fauci has been a disaster as a policy advocate. He has sent muddled and sometimes contradictory messages, resorted to lying, and has not followed his own guidelines. He may be smart as heck on the science, but he has failed to offer a coherent policy from the beginning.

In short, retailers have been forced to bear the burden of what is largely failed public policy. But then turning that failure into some sort of public shaming exercise for those who choose not to get vaccinated is a horrendously creepy thought.

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