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Don’t expect masking rules to change overnight

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Shoppers and diners will likely see few — if any — immediate changes to businesses’ policies about social distancing and mask wearing when they head to the grocery store or out to eat, despite new public health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“On balance, what will probably happen is nothing,” said Joel Bines, global co-leader of the retail practice at consulting firm AlixPartners. “Most retailers are going to opt to continue to do what they’ve been doing.”

The CDC issued updated guidance on Thursday, saying that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask or stay six feet apart in most settings. It marked an inflection point in the pandemic, clearing the way for some degree of normalcy at outdoor and indoor gatherings. The decision comes as nearly 59% of all U.S. adults have had at least one dose of the vaccine, as of Thursday.

Yet for major retailers, the calculus is different. Many, including Target, Home Depot, Gap and Ulta Beauty, said they would maintain their pandemic precautions and continue to monitor developments in the weeks and months ahead. Some said in company statements that they were still reviewing the guidance. Others stressed the importance of safety, especially as some customers and employees have not gotten the Covid vaccination and children under age 12 are not eligible for it.

“We are aware of the updated CDC guidance released today and are actively assessing the implications of this updated guidance for our guests and associates, keeping health & safety as our top priority,” Ulta said in a company statement.

Trader Joe’s broke from the trend. In a statement on its website, the grocer said it encourages customers to follow health officials’ guidelines — including CDC guidance that says customers who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks while shopping. The company did not say how it will check customers’ vaccination status, however, and said it will keep up other measures like extra cleaning and wellness checks for staff.

Starbucks and Kroger did not immediately have a response to the updated CDC guidance, but still had notices on stores and on their websites about mask requirements.

In statements, leaders of the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association both said safety of customers and employees will remain a priority.

Lisa LaBruno, RILA’s senior executive vice president of retail operations and innovation, encouraged people to continue to follow private businesses’ rules.

“We urge all retail customers and guests to follow a store’s safety protocols including wearing a mask and social distancing,” she said. “Frontline workers deserve this respect. Retailers encourage customers that do not want to wear a mask to shop online or via curbside pickup offerings.” 

Larry Lynch, the senior vice president of science and industry for the National Restaurant Association, said that operators will need to work with state and local regulators to ensure that they follow other mandates in place. Lynch said that the trade group won’t immediately update its Covid-19 operating guidance, but it is encouraged by the CDC’s recommendation as the industry looks to bounce back from the crisis.

Bines of AlixPartners said retailers and restaurants have a major operational challenge: Not having “visible proof” of who is or is not vaccinated when a person walks through the door. He said most do not want to check customers’ vaccine status because it may come across as political or intrusive.

Plus, he added, they must juggle other factors, such as mask mandates that vary in different states and localities and health concerns of customers and their own workforce.

 “It’s unlikely that you’re going to see a rapid unwinding of the Covid protocols — the [social distancing] stickers, the plexiglass and so forth — regardless of what the CDC came out and said today because most retailers will take the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to dealing with this,” he said.

He said there is one change that consumers may see: Retailers potentially moving to softer language on the signs posted on their store doors or in the aisles. Instead of saying that masks are required, he said companies may tweak the wording to have more nuance — such as asking to please wear masks out of respect for other customers or out of kindness for employees.

That shift could also lessen tension with customers who opposed mandates and perhaps are more open to masks as a courtesy, he said.

“It’s a little easier for them now because it’s not quite as polarized,” he said. “It’s not as black and white. It’s now ‘We would like to encourage mask wearing for the benefit of our employees, for the benefit of each other, while we’re in this uncertain time.'”

Some businesses — mostly those oriented around outdoor venues — did drop mask requirements or say they may do that soon. Hershey Park said in a tweet on Thursday that face coverings and social distancing will not be required for fully vaccinated guests. It followed up with a message on Friday morning, saying it will be up to customers to enforce the policy for themselves.

“At this time we will rely on our guests to accurately follow the guidelines based on their vaccination status,” it said.

Yet not all cheered the decision. One of the country’s major grocery unions, United Food and Commercial Workers, said once again, frontline retail workers will be put in a tough spot as they interact with numerous strangers and are expected to help enforce the rules.

“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” Marc Perrone, the union’s international president said in a statement. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”

—CNBC’s Amelia Lucas, Sarah Whitten and Nadine El-Bawab contributed to this story.

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