NEW YORK — An abrupt relaxation of mask policies has left workers at some retail and grocery stores reeling as they try to sort out what the new environment means for their own safety and relationship with customers.
Kroger, the country's largest grocery chain, became one of the latest to announce that, starting Thursday, workers and customers can stop wearing masks in states where mandates are no longer in effect. Other companies that have adopted similar changes include Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Macy's, Costco, Home Depot, Trader Joe's and Target, following updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
Some workers have taken to social media to cheer, but many others protested. Some don't trust customers — or their co-workers — to be truthful about their vaccination status since most companies are not requiring proof. Others fear they will be judged if they leave their own masks on, even though their reasons for doing so are varied.
William Stratford, 29, won't be fully vaccinated until next month, but shoppers and co-workers at the home improvement store where he works have been coming in without a mask even before his store relaxed mask guidelines this week.
He has complained to management and eats lunch in his car to avoid mask-less people in the breakroom. He gets stares from shoppers and co-workers.
"I know for a fact people have a negative opinion of me," said Stratford, who asked that the store where he works not be named out of fear of reprisal. "It's become a divisive issue in the workplace."
The CDC last week said fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — can stop wearing masks outdoors and in most indoor settings. The guidance still calls for people who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks indoors, and for everyone to wear them in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.
That has left retailer, grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and other employers scrambling to decide whether and how to adjust their own policies. Some companies, including Trader Joe's and Macy's, are allowing vaccinated customers to drop their masks but not employees. Meanwhile, some grocery chains like Safeway are leaving their mask requirements in place.
Some workers worry they have been left to bear the fallout of a confusing jumble of policies. John Bartlett, a meat manager at a Safeway in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, said he is personally relieved that, for now, his store is still requiring masks for everyone but he worries that the policy will make dealing with anti-mask customers even more difficult.
"We have customers who literally cuss at us," said Bartlett, recalling an incident where a man stormed out of the store shouting obscenities after Bartlett pleaded with him to wear a mask. "The country should just have one policy. It would make it easier because we wouldn't have deal with customers who are so rude and awful to us."
The Biden administration had faced pressure to ease restrictions on vaccinated Americans, in part to show the benefits of getting the shot at a time when vaccine demand has started to plateau. Companies are also trying to incentivize their employees to get vaccinated with measures ranging from bonus payments to on-site vaccination drives.
It's unclear if the relaxed mask restrictions will motivate unvaccinated workers to now get their shot. Some may feel more at risk of contracting COVID-19 but others may believe they can enjoy the same privileges as vaccinated workers because no one is checking.
Amazon is among the few companies that is requiring employees to show proof they got the shot before going mask-less, asking them to upload a picture of their vaccine card by mid-June. At Walmart, workers who don't wear masks must confirm they are vaccinated by filling out a daily questionnaire, though it is not requiring proof. Still, the company will have some insight into who is vaccinated because workers must show documentation to get a $75 bonus offered to those who get the shots.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial International Union, said about 40% of workers who participated in a recent union survey said they were vaccinated. He acknowledged that some many never get the shots, but he said the CDC and companies should have waited a few months to give people more time before shifting the guidance for indoor settings.
Workplace experts warn that a two-tiered mask policy risks sowing resentment and suspicions if not properly implemented.
Kristin White, a workplace safety attorney at law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP, in Cleveland, Ohio, believes employers should request workers to show proof of vaccination and says that many don't realize they are legally permitted to do so.
"The honor system carries more risk," said White, who has been advising companies on masks during the pandemic.
Interrogating workers on why they are or aren't wearing masks raises privacy concerns.
"Some of those employees may be wearing a mask because they have a disability and they can't get vaccinated; someone may be wearing a mask that is vaccinated but they feel more comfortable wearing a mask," White said.
She is recommending that her clients have a written policy for employees to not ask their peers why they're wearing a face covering. She also says that workers should be trained not tell on each other.
For Bill Easton, the concern is around customers. Easton has been working as a cashier at a Safeway in Aurora, Colorado, for 27 years and he already feels helpless when customers defy his store's mask policy. He fears they will become more emboldened now that mask policies are being relaxed around the country, even though they remain in place in his store.
On the other hand, some of his friendlier, longtime customers announce to him that they are fully vaccinated and give him a big hug. Easton, too, is vaccinated and even though he appreciates the show of affection, it makes him nervous.
"You wonder, do they really have their COVID shot?" he said.