The end of mask mandates in Texas and Mississippi has created a dilemma for businesses: Keep such safety rules in place to protect against COVID-19 spread, as leading health officials advise, or follow the two states' decisions and loosen restrictions.
Leading U.S. grocery chains, pharmacies, retailers and auto manufacturers, including Target, Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, Best Buy, Macy's JCPenney, Toyota, GM and others, say they will continue to require mask wearing at their stores and facilities by both employees and customers. There are exceptions, however, and some business advocates are concerned that the end of these states' mask mandates will create new challenges for companies and their workers.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves both announced Tuesday that their states will lift mask requirements that have been in place for months to protect against COVID-19. The announcements come as virus cases and hospitalizations continue to drop across the country and more Americans get vaccinated. However, health experts say relaxing restrictions now could lead to another surge, especially with variants spreading.
"We will continue to enforce our COVID safety practices we've had in place since we returned to work last spring," GM spokesperson Patrick Morrissey said in an email. The company has 13,500 employees in Texas. "This will ensure we adequately protect our employees and continue to meet OSHA workplace protection standards."
Kroger "will continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the vaccine," a spokesperson said in an email.
Not all chains are taking this approach.
Texas grocer H-E-B has never had a mask requirement for its customers, instead deferring to local and state ordinances. Now that the state will no longer require masks in public settings, H-E-B will follow that direction except in areas where masks are mandated by local officials.
"H-E-B will still require all our (employees) and vendors to wear masks while at work, and we urge all customers to please wear a mask when in our stores," Dya Campos, a spokesperson for H-E-B, said in an email.
Albertsons also said it will require its workers in Texas to wear masks, but is changing the policy for customers in the state.
"We will encourage face coverings, but will not mandate, and will be updating our signage accordingly," said Christine Wilcox, spokesperson for Albertsons, in an email.
Mask wearing has been a contentious issue throughout the pandemic. Retail workers, restaurant staff and other frontline workers have often been thrust into the role of carrying out their employers' mask rules with customers, sometimes with violent consequences. In the early months of the pandemic, a Family Dollar security officer was shot and killed after telling a customer to wear a mask and in Los Angeles, a Target security guard was left with a broken arm from a fight with two unmasked customers.
Jason Brewer, spokesperson for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents top retailers, said ending state mask mandates is a "mistake" and "premature." It will put retail chains and their workers in a vulnerable position of enforcing mask rules once again, he warned.
The Texas Restaurant Association, which represents restaurants in the state, also worries that the end of the mask mandate could expose workers to confrontations with customers who refuse to wear one.
"It's absolutely a concern," Kelsey Erickson Streufert, vice president of government relations, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. "Earlier in the pandemic, we did hear several stories of customers becoming angry and potentially even threatening with restaurant employees who were, frankly, just trying to do their jobs and keep people safe."
The group will work with restaurant owners and employees on strategies to communicate mask policies to customers, Erickson Streufert said, and encourage restaurants to post signs at the entrance to their dining areas alerting customers of their mask policies.
CNN's Amir Vera, Vanessa Yurkevich and Danielle Wiener-Bronner contributed to this article.
How to properly wear 2 masks
The CDC found that wearing two masks provided more protection than one. Here is a look at the CDC’s advice and some tips on how to mask properly, plus charts showing you how and where the COVID-19 virus is spreading.
How to mask properly
What to do: Layer a cloth mask on top of a surgical or medical procedure mask. This helps the entire setup fit more snugly. Make sure the fit is comfortable and doesn’t have gaps around the sides of the face or nose.
What not to do: Do not combine two disposable masks, which are not designed to fit tightly. Wearing more than one disposable mask at a time will not improve fit. Also, do not wear a KN95 mask, a type of filtering face-piece respirator, with any other mask.
Cloth-mask dos: Choose a cloth mask made of multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric that includes a nose wire, which can help improve the mask’s fit. Does the mask block light when you hold it up to a bright light source? Then it’s a good construction.
Cloth mask don’ts: Stay away from cloth masks with exhalation valves or vents, which can allow respiratory droplets to leak into or out of a mask.
What to do: Other studies have found that placing a sleeve made of sheer nylon hosiery material around the neck and pulling it up over either a cloth or surgical mask significantly improved the wearer’s protection by fitting the mask more tightly to the face and reducing edge gaps.
Knotted ear loops
What to do: The CDC recommends knotting, folding then tucking the ear loops of 3-ply masks for a better fit — making the edges of the mask fit more tightly to your face. First, fold the mask in half lengthwise, lining up the corners and edges. Second, tie a knot with the elastic loops, as close as you can to the mask, according to an instructional video from the University of North Carolina’s UNC Health. Next, bend the metal nose mold so it fits the shape of your nose. Next, the knot will make the sides of the mask near the tied ear loops puff out. Fold those puffed-out edges in a pleat so it lays flat on your cheek. When putting on the mask make sure it fits snugly.
What not to do: Don’t wear more than one disposable mask at a time; handle the mask only by its ear loops, cords or head straps.
What about KN95: A KN95 shouldn’t need any modifying of the straps. Ideally, this type of mask can filter up to 95% of particles in the air; however, counterfeit KN95 masks make it hard to distinguish real KN95s from fake ones just by looking at them. Do not wear a KN95 mask with an exhalation valve, which can allow respiratory droplets to leak in or out of the mask. If you have facial hair, then this type of mask might not make a good fit. Do not combine a KN95 mask with another KN95 mask or any other type of mask.
What to do: Air leaks around the edges of a mask can be reduced by layering one of these devices on top of a cloth mask for a better fit. A recent study showed that when either a solid or elastic fitter is worn over a surgical mask, it can potentially increase the wearer’s protection by 90% for aerosols. A mask brace can be purchased online or made out of rubber bands. Former Apple product design engineer Sabrina Paseman, behind fixthemask.com, posted a tutorial that lays out the steps: First, chain three rubber bands together. Second, place the center rubber band in front of the mask around the chin and nose. Adjust fit and do a CDC seal check.
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