Just a few months ago, low COVID case numbers and high vaccination rates prompted many businesses to roll back most COVID precautions. Gone were the mask mandates, social distancing requirements, and capacity limits that had been in place for more than a year at major retailers across the country. But this was all before the rise of the Delta variant, which has caused virus-related cases, hospitalizations, and deaths to skyrocket. Now, retailers are being forced to revisit those restrictions they lifted not all that long ago. Walmart has become one of the first major retailers to announce that it is bringing back one COVID precaution to keep customers safe amid the Delta variant surge. Read on to find out what you can expect during your next shopping trip.
Walmart is bringing back its mask mandate for certain employees.
On May 14, Walmart dropped its mask mandate for fully vaccinated employees and customers, but the policy is now being reversed in certain areas. According to the retailer's updated mask guidance, all Walmart and Sam's Club associates "working in an area of substantial or high transmission are required to wear a mask or face covering while working indoors, regardless of vaccination status." And this change is effective immediately. Vaccinated employees at stores in areas with state or local mask mandates are also required to wear masks even if transmission is not high—but this has been the case since Walmart lifted its requirements in May.
Walmart's decision follows the CDC's reversal of its mask guidance.
Walmart's mask reversal comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its own. On July 27, the CDC updated its guidance for vaccinated individuals, recommending that everyone wear a mask indoors when in areas of substantial and high transmission, regardless of vaccination status. According to the CDC, substantial transmission is 50 to 100 COVID cases weekly per 100,000 people or a positivity rate between 8 and 10 percent, while high transmission is 100 or more cases weekly per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 10 percent of higher. As of July 27, there are several states that have various counties with substantial or high transmission, but there are three states where every county falls under the agency's new mask advisory: Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
"The CDC updates its data on transmission rates every Monday, so the guidance on mask usage will change over time in different locations," Walmart added in its updated guidance.
The company is not requiring fully vaccinated shoppers to wear masks, however.
While vaccinated Walmart associates are being required to wear masks in high-risk areas, vaccinated shoppers are not. According to the retailer's latest guidance, there will be signs posted at stores to "remind customers and members about the CDC's revised guidance." But the company will only be strongly encouraging vaccinated Walmart shoppers to wear masks or face coverings in these areas, not requiring it.
Walmart is also implementing a new system to verify employee vaccination status.
Walmart also announced that it will be more stringent in checking employee vaccination status. On July 30, the company said it will implement a system to verify which workers are vaccinated and can go unmasked in areas with low transmission, according to The Wall Street Journal. Previously, most Walmart stores were just using the honor system, alongside a questionnaire, to gauge vaccination states and determine if an employee could go mask-less, per New York Times reporter Lauren Hirsch. The retailer is also doubling the bonus it offers to employees who get vaccinated to $150.
"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," Walmart said in a staff memo.