With over 38% of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that we’re one step closer to a maskless existence. As of May 13, fully vaccinated individuals can safely forgo their masks while spending time outside and visiting indoor establishments. In some settings (like planes and medical spaces), masks will still be required, but there are a lot of places you can now visit mask-free, if you’re at least two weeks from your final vaccine dose.
Since the CDC’s announcement, major retail chains have started to update their mask policies, too. Trader Joe’s was reportedly the first major store to change its policy on Friday, allowing vaccinated customers — but not employees — to drop their face coverings, a spokesperson told USA Today. And on Friday, Walmart, Costco, Starbucks, and Publix all announced that vaccinated people can drop their masks, too.
“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,” Walmart and Sam's Club executives wrote in a joint statement. “We will update the signage in our facilities to reflect this.” (The company also added that it is offering a cash bonus to any associates who show proof of vaccination.)
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek released a similar update. “We will not require proof of vaccination, except where required by law, but we ask for members’ responsible and respectful cooperation with this revised policy,” Jelinek wrote on Friday. “As before, our goal is to continue to provide a safe shopping environment for our members and guests and to provide a safe work environment for our employees, while following public health advice and applicable laws.”
Target took a little more time to weigh the mask-or-no-mask decision. On Friday, a spokesperson told CBS that the company was still reviewing the CDC’s new guidelines, and would be requiring masks in the meantime. A few days later, the chain announced that vaccinated guests and employees could opt out of wearing masks. The same day, Best Buy, Kohl’s, and CVS dropped their mask requirements, too. CVS clarified that all employees will still have to cover their faces.
The latest to update its guidelines is supermarket giant Kroger. “We have received feedback from and heard the valued opinions of thousands of associates regarding the CDC’s announcement,” the company wrote on Wednesday. “Based on the CDC’s science-based guidance and the input of our associates, we are updating our mask policy in a way that balances our values of safety and respect.” Starting on Thursday, vaccinated customers and associates no longer need to wear masks. Kroger employees will also be given a bonus for receiving the vaccine.
There are some exceptions, though. Because the CDC says people in healthcare should continue to mask up, associates working in Kroger pharmacy and clinic locations will still be mandated to wear masks. Similarly, Costco will require customers and employees to cover their faces during “close contact situations in healthcare settings, including Pharmacy, Optical, Hearing Aid.”
All of the businesses mentioned clarified that some locations will still require masks based on local state and city-wide ordinances. Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, for one, said that officials have been contacting chains to remind them that masking requirements are still in place across California. “This is going to be pretty easy for businesses and customers, residents and visitors to understand — because there’s one standard for the whole state. And it requires that we continue to wear our masks until June 15,” Ferrer said, according to the L.A. Times.
There’s no way to guarantee that all unmasked customers are fully vaccinated, but Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, previously told Refinery29 that there’s an important benefit to dropping mask mandates, which is that it “reiterates confidence in vaccination efficacy and overall management of the pandemic.”
That said, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to wear your mask, and it's especially prudent to continue to be cautious inside. “Ultimately, I believe it’s important to communicate that while this guidance applies to those fully vaccinated, you can still wear a mask based off your risk tolerance,” Dr. Popescu said, “and that if people are wearing masks, you shouldn’t make assumptions regarding vaccination status.”