Kroger, Walmart reverse their mask policies as Delta variant spreads

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(CBS NEWS) — Kroger and Walmart, two of the nation’s biggest retailing chains, are changing their mask policies as the nation contends with less-vaccinated regions getting hit by high infection rates due to the Delta variant.

Kroger is now “strongly” encouraging all individuals, including those who are vaccinated, to wear a mask when in its stores and facilities, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based supermarket operator said Friday, citing updated recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Previously, Kroger had required unvaccinated employees wear masks and requested that unvaccinated shoppers do the same. 

“We will continue to abide by all state and local mandates and encourage all Americans to get vaccinated, including our associates,” the company said in an emailed statement. Kroger, the nation’s largest grocer, operates nearly 2,800 stores in 35 states.

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart said it will require all its workers — including vaccinated ones — to wear masks in areas with high infection rates of COVID-19. The country’s largest retailer also is encouraging its customers to wear masks in stores in areas with high infection rates from the Delta variant of the coronavirus, and will be adding back signs at entrances announcing its latest policies, according to a memo supplied by Walmart that was sent to its employees Friday. 

Walmart will also bring back its “health ambassadors” who will be positioned at the entrances and hand out masks to customers.

Walmart: Vaccination mandate

On Friday, Walmart said it will require that all home office workers as well as management-level staff members who travel within the U.S. be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 4 as part of a series of sweeping measures it announced to help curb the spread of the virus and drive more of its workers to get the shot in the arm.

The vaccine mandate excludes frontline workers, who the company says have a lower vaccination rate than management. But it’s hoping that management will serve as an inspiration for its workers.

The company, which employs 1.5 million people at more than 4,700 stores across the U.S., is also doubling to $150 its incentive for workers in its Walmart stores, Sam’s Club operations and transportation, distribution and fulfillment centers. Those who already received the $75 incentive will receive another $75 in their paycheck dated August 19.

The moves come three days after the CDC changed course on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the Delta variant is fueling infection surges.

Wherever Delta variant dominates

The Delta variant is overwhelmingly the dominant strain across the country, according to CDC data. It now accounts for “83% of sequenced cases” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a July 20 hearing before the Senate. 

The highly contagious strain has also shut down Hollywood movie productions and return-to-office plans for tech companies like Twitter

“We continue to watch with deep concern the developments of the pandemic and the spread of variants, especially the [Delta] variant,” Donna Morris, Walmart’s chief people officer, wrote in the memo circulated to employees. “We know vaccinations are our solution to drive change. We are urging you to get vaccinated and want to see many more of you vaccinated.”

Scott Pope, a Walmart spokesman, declined to comment on the percentage of Walmart workers who are vaccinated but told the Associated Press the retailer has seen a “positive response” to the first incentive and is anticipating the new incentive will drive a similar response from workers.

Walmart said it is also implementing a new process for verification of vaccine status for U.S. workers. It says it will share those details in the future.

Publix reverses masking rule, too

The 1,200-store grocery chain Publix also joined the growing masks-up crowd on Friday when it announced that all store employees, vaccinated or not, must “wear face coverings over their noses and mouths while inside any Publix location” starting August 2.

Publix is one of the most prominent brand-name grocers in the U.S. Southeast, with more than 800 stores alone in Florida, a state where the Delta variant has been spreading quickly.

“Customers and associates should remain physically distanced from others inside any Publix store,” the company’s statement said. “We encourage all to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19.” 

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