Walmart Inc. and other retailers won't enforce their face mask policies for shoppers out of concern that doing so could anger customers and endanger employees.
Because some people are unable to wear masks for health or religious reasons, a Walmart spokesman said, denying them store entry without a face covering could be considered discriminatory.
Retailers like Walmart walk a fine line these days between trying to protect customers and employees from exposure to the coronavirus and potentially dangerous confrontations.
A poll released July 23 by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that 3 out of 4 Americans favor mask requirements in public places.
However, a minority of the public views such mandates, whether by businesses or state and local governments, as infringing on their constitutional rights.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend face coverings in public settings where it's difficult to maintain social distancing. Studies have shown the masks can greatly reduce transmission of the virus.
Walmart, based in Bentonville, enacted its mask requirement for customers at its more than 5,000 U.S. stores and clubs on July 20. The company said that it would make exceptions for people unable to wear masks because of a health condition and employees would not press them for details.
Walmart has designated some workers at every store to serve as "health ambassadors" and stand outside reminding customers entering the store about the mask policy. Sam's Club, Walmart's members-only warehouse division, does not have "health ambassadors," but stations employees at the door to perform the same function.
Dacona Smith, chief operating officer for Walmart U.S., and Lance de la Rosa, chief operating officer for Sam's Club, said in a July 15 blog post that the mask reminders' role would include turning away people who did not comply.
That post was later updated, however, to say that the employees "will work with customers who show up at a store without a face covering to try and find a solution."
Employee safety "is a priority, as well as the safety of our customers," the Walmart spokesman said in an email. "In all markets, ambassadors receive training on how to improve customer compliance, de-escalate conflict if needed and how to treat situations where a customer may not be able to wear a mask due to a religious reason or medical condition," he said.
In some markets, he said, the company has enlisted help from third-party security providers.
"We've seen a positive response from customers when it comes to the [safety] measures we've taken," the spokesman said, "and we'll continue to adapt our approach as the pandemic continues to find ways to serve them."
While each store is different, he said, most customers wear masks during their shopping trips. In addition, "the majority of our associates are wearing masks throughout their shifts each week," he said.
The retailer has required workers at all its U.S. stores, clubs and warehouses to wear masks or face coverings since April 20.
CVS Health Corp. also says it will not enforce its mask policy for customers that it enacted July 20.
"For safety reasons, we have asked our employees to avoid escalated confrontations with non-compliant customers, and to instead help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible while providing information about other options we have available for their future needs, including free home delivery for prescriptions and our drive-thru window service," the company said Wednesday in a statement.
Kroger's mask policy, in place since July 22 and posted in its corporate website, also acknowledges that some people may not be able to wear a mask, and in those cases, "we encourage those customers to consider an alternative option like a face shield or facial covering. If they're unable to wear a mask or an alternative design, we request that they use our e-commerce services like pickup and delivery."
Like many businesses, Kroger's mask policy exempts young children.
Both Target Corp. and McDonald's Corp. will require customers to wear masks starting Saturday.
Joe Erlinger, president of McDonald's USA, said in a news release that for cases in which customers decline to wear one, "we'll put in place additional procedures to take care of them in a friendly, expedited way."
The company also will provide training for restaurant employees to prepare them to handle these situations "in a friendly and positive way," Erlinger said. "We also will re-share resources for our and our franchisees' employees who want to revisit de-escalation training," he said.
Target did not immediately reply to a request for comment Wednesday on its new policy.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association wrote to the National Governors Association earlier this month urging governors to take a leadership role in the mask-wearing debate by wearing masks themselves when shopping or in public places and by not politicizing the issue.
"Given the incidents we have all seen on social media involving aggressive customers refusing to wear a mask, we strongly recommend store employees not be charged with primary enforcement of mask mandates and that retailers not be fined for a customer's non-compliance," the group wrote.
"Retailers are using extensive signage at entrances and throughout the store to enforce safety policies, and we recommend this be the role of retailers and their employees – to clearly communicate policy, but not physically confront customers," the group said in the letter.