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Trader Joe’s drops mask rules, but many customers keep them on: It’s ‘too soon’

A person pushes shopping carts to a collection area outside of Trader Joe's.
Shopping carts are returned to a collection area outside of Trader Joe’s on July 20 in Sherman Oaks.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Alhambra resident Jack Robb is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, having taken both doses of the Moderna vaccine by late March.

Yet, when given the opportunity to shop without a facial covering at Trader Joe’s in South Pasadena on Friday afternoon for the first time since last spring, the 72-year-old Robb entered the small store double-masked.

“I just don’t think you can take chances,” Robb said. “I’m an older citizen and I’m vulnerable even with the vaccinations, which help prevent serious illness, but not infection.”

Visitors to the South Pasadena Trader Joe’s were greeted by a small sign at the entrance that read, “In accordance with CDC guidelines, customers who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks while shopping in our stores.”

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Inside the store, about 50 customers shopped around 3:15 p.m. with only two not wearing masks.

The message was a regurgitation of a company policy and statement issued earlier in the day noting that vaccinated customers no longer needed masks.

The situation underscores the concern some still have about going without masks even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer guidance relaxing the rules.

Under the new federal guidelines, anyone who is two weeks or more past their final vaccination can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without a mask or physical distancing.

The CDC’s guidance caught many off guard in California, including local and state health officials as well as business owners and front-line workers. Opinion was largely divided: Some said the move felt premature and could hurt front-line workers. Others said it was about time, with California and many other states experiencing the lowest number of daily coronavirus cases in a year.

Retailers are taking different approaches.

Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Costco will no longer require fully vaccinated shoppers to don masks, making them some of first major businesses to change their face-covering policies after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines Thursday.

Trader Joe’s supermarket updated the COVID-19 guidance on its website Friday to say it continues to review federal, state and local health advisories and to adjust efforts where it makes sense.

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Beginning Tuesday, Walmart employees who are fully vaccinated also will have the option of working without a mask, according to a memo sent to U.S. associates that has been made public.

Costco President and Chief Executive Craig Jelinek announced the policy change in an open letter to customers, saying that the large retailer still recommends mask wearing for all visitors, “especially those who are at higher risk.”

Kroger, which operates Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores, and CVS said in statements that they are reviewing their practices, but are requiring masks to be worn by employees and customers for the time being.

Home Depot and Walgreens are also keeping their masking requirements in place, the retailers said through respective spokespeople.

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At the Trader Joe’s, Robb had known of the policy change before heading to the chain neighborhood store founded in Pasadena in 1967 but felt it was too soon to shop maskless.

“I don’t think we’re far enough into vaccinations to stop wearing masks and there’s nothing that Trader Joe’s is doing to check if maskless shoppers are unvaccinated or not,” he said.

“This is irresponsible and too soon,” said Ana Mejia, 67, a Highland Park resident and shopper who stopped by for a bouquet of tulips and broccolini. “So many people are trying their best to stop this disease by masking and social distancing and we’re not done.”

Like Robb, Mejia also received two doses of Moderna and worries about vulnerable populations.

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“There are still people trying to get shots, people who are vulnerable and now you’re going to have people who haven’t taken a vaccination walking into the stores without masks,” said Mejia through her blue surgical mask. “There are a lot of liars.”

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the new mask guidance from the CDC has “created some new anxiety for many, that it may be too soon, too much. And so we’re adjudicating all that.”

On Friday, Newsom said he was planning on meeting with his health advisors later to talk about the CDC guidance. “We have to ask all the questions you would be asking us: How do you enforce? What does it look like in the schools? … There’s a whole host of complexities we all have to work through.”

Newsom said his office has been talking to other governors — some who wanted to quickly default to CDC guidelines but later realized how the recommendations posed difficult questions around enforcing mask-wearing rules for unvaccinated people.

“We’re working through all of that,” Newsom said, saying state officials have been on the phone with the CDC and local health officers across the state, where there are many different opinions and complicated things to entangle, such as existing Cal/OSHA requirements, safety agreements established with unions, and even how these guidelines would affect recently updated relaxed rules at amusement parks and sports venues.

Newsom said he hoped to issue guidelines and answer as many questions as he could, “mindful that many more questions will present themselves.”


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