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Starbucks, Target, Trader Joe’s are dropping mask rules. Why California is stopping them for now

May 2020 photo of workers clean up outside a Target store in San Diego County.
Workers cleaning up outside a Target in San Diego County. The retailer joins a growing list of businesses allowing vaccinated customers to shop without masks.
(Gary Robbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Target and Starbucks are dropping their mask requirements for customers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, joining a growing list of businesses changing their face-covering policies after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance last week.

Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Costco announced similar policy changes Friday, one day after the CDC dramatically loosened its masking suggestions for fully vaccinated people.

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

But at a news conference Monday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services secretary, said the state will adopt the CDC’s masking guidelines June 15 — the target date for reopening the full economy.

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The interim “will give California time to prepare for this change, while we continue the relentless focus on delivering vaccines,” Ghaly said. Until then, guidelines requiring in-store masks remain in effect.

During the next month, state health officials will work with employers to hammer out logistics, such as how to enforce the policy, Ghaly said.

Just over 39% of Californians are fully vaccinated, according to Times data. After a devastating winter surge, the state now has one of the lowest positivity rates in the country.

Thousands of retailers in California will be affected by the new policy. Starbucks has more than 2,900 locations in the state, Target operates over 300, and Trader Joe’s and Costco have about 130 each.

How will this impact Los Angeles County?

L.A. County also plans to adopt the CDC’s guidelines June 15 if case rates remain low, public health officials said Monday.

“At this point, we feel very comfortable being aligned with the state,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a news conference shortly after the state’s update.

“The sensible path forward that the governor has outlined makes a lot of sense. So I think barring something fundamentally different happening here in L.A. County that would really bring about cause for great concern, you can see us embracing the June 15 reopening plan.”

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Supervisor Hilda Solis praised the state’s decision to wait, saying the delay “gives us time to make sure we do this responsibly.”

“Vaccinations are the key to finally putting this pandemic behind us,” she said Monday. About 43% of L.A. County residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated.

Will all businesses adopt the CDC’s guidelines on June 15?

No. Individual businesses and local health jurisdictions can opt to delay the relaxation of mask requirements or, in certain instances, maintain them.

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The new CDC guidance does not eliminate all mask recommendations for vaccinated people. Face coverings are still recommended in some settings — such as aboard planes and buses or in crowded settings such as hospitals.

What are stores saying about their masking policies?

Target

Target’s policy, updated Monday, does not require customers or employees to wear masks. The retailer said face coverings are still “strongly recommended” for those who aren’t fully vaccinated, according to a statement.

“The health and safety of our guests and team members have been Target’s top priority throughout the pandemic, and we’ve closely and consistently followed the CDC’s recommendations over time,” Target said in a statement. “Given the CDC’s updated guidance last week, Target will no longer require fully vaccinated guests and team members to wear face coverings in our stores, except where it’s required by local ordinances.”

The retailer said it will be keeping its increased safety and cleaning measures, including social distancing.

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Starbucks

On Monday, Starbucks began giving fully vaccinated customers the option to patronize its stores without a mask.

“It is our responsibility to protect our partners and customers, and we are committed to meeting or exceeding all public health mandates,” the international coffee juggernaut said in recently updated guidelines.

Restrooms will still typically remain closed to the public at stores where seating is unavailable, according to the guidelines.

Home Depot

Home Depot said through a spokesperson Monday that it no longer is requiring fully vaccinated customers or employees to wear masks.

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The announcement reverses the home improvement retailer’s statement Friday that it would continue to require masks.

“Masks are still encouraged for those who aren’t fully vaccinated, and we’ll keep safety measures in place like enhanced cleaning and social distancing,” Home Depot spokeswoman Margaret Smith said in an email.

Some people are still concerned about going without masks even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer guidance relaxing the rules.

Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s altered its policy Friday to allow fully vaccinated customers to shop without face coverings. Employees still need to mask up for now.

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“In accordance with CDC guidelines, customers who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks while shopping in our stores,” Kenya Friend-Daniel, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson, said in an email.

Trader Joe’s, which is headquartered in Monrovia and has more than 130 locations in California, rolled out the new policy in at least one location in the state last week.

Customers in South Pasadena on Friday were greeted with a sign saying masks were no longer required, although the vast majority of shoppers still wore them.

Trader Joe’s did not respond to questions about how the policy fit with state and local rules. But on Monday, Ferrer said officials have been contacting a number of retail chains to emphasize that rules requiring everyone to wear masks indoors in a store remain in effect in California.

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Walmart

Walmart on Friday began allowing fully vaccinated customers to shop without a mask in stores where state and local policies permit such.

Vaccinated employees will have the same option beginning Tuesday.

To be eligible to work without a mask, employees need to affirmatively answer a vaccine question in a daily health assessment, according to a memo sent to U.S. associates.

“If you are not vaccinated, we expect you to answer ‘no’ and to continue to wear a face covering,” the memo states. “Integrity is one of our core values, and we trust that associates will respect that principle when answering.”

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The company is giving $75 to U.S. employees who get their shots “as a thank you for getting vaccinated,” according to the memo.

Costco

Costco dropped its in-store mask requirement for vaccinated customers Friday, where allowed under state and local rules.

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.”

The retailer will still require masks in healthcare settings, including its pharmacy, optical and hearing aid departments, the letter states.

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After posting video of himself hassling a Costco worker, former child star Ricky Schroder writes, ‘sorry that I had to use you’ to make a point.

CVS

CVS is reviewing its policy in light of the new federal guidelines but is requiring masks to be worn by employees and customers for the time being.

“We are currently reevaluating our position on masks given the CDC’s new guidance. Until that evaluation is complete, the existing company policies on face coverings and maintaining social distance in stores and clinics remain in effect,” Joe Goode, a CVS spokesperson, said in an email.

He added that the “safety of employees, customers and vendors will continue to guide our decision-making process.”

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Kroger

Kroger, which operates Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores, is also reviewing its practices. In the meantime, masks must be worn by employees and customers.

Kroger is trying to incentivize vaccinations among retail employees by offering $100 to those who get them. The company also said it would ask for employee input before altering its mask rules.

“As we have throughout the pandemic, we are reviewing current safety practices, the CDC’s latest guidance and soliciting feedback from associates to guide the next phase of our policy,” Kroger said in a statement provided by spokeswoman Sheila Regehr.

Walgreens

Pharmacy chain Walgreens will continue to require customers and employees to wear masks in its stores.

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”We have decided to keep our current face covering policy in place for the time being,” Walgreens spokesman Campbell O’Connor said in an email. “The safety of our team members and customers is our top priority and will continue to guide our decision process.”

How will stores know if customers and employees are vaccinated?

It’s not yet clear how or whether businesses will be required to verify whether customers or employees are vaccinated.

On Monday, Ghaly said it’s one of the issues that state officials, in conjunction with the business community, will address before the CDC’s masking guidelines are adopted.

“There’s different ways to implement it,” Ghaly said. The goal is to develop a plan “with a high degree of integrity with continued focus on protecting the public,” he added.

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Ferrer said that keeping some health precautions in place will help mitigate risks posed by the unknown.

“There is no way to determine onsite whether another person is vaccinated or not,” she said. “We have come this far by taking care of each other, and to end this pandemic, we’ll need to remain willing to follow sensible safety modifications that make it possible to reduce cases and outbreaks while we increase the number of residents that are fully vaccinated.”

With a month to go before the state’s planned reopening, residents still have time to receive their vaccine shots — and may be further motivated to do so by the possibility of dropping their masks in certain situations, officials said.

Several businesses, including Trader Joe’s and Costco, said they will not attempt to verify whether customers are vaccinated. Instead, they will rely on the honor system.

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Costco stores will not require proof of vaccination, “but we ask for members’ responsible and respectful cooperation with this revised policy,” Costco’s Jelinek said.

Trader Joe’s similarly will not be checking for proof, “as we trust our customers to follow CDC guidelines,” Friend-Daniel said.

Walmart told employees they should only stop wearing a mask at work if they’re vaccinated and will be asking them about their vaccination status as part of a health screening assessment.

Will businesses that dropped their mask requirements in California have to change course?

The CDC’s change in guidance has caused confusion over masking policy nationwide since many states and local jurisdictions — including California and L.A. County — still have mask requirements in place.

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The CDC’s guidelines, while influential, are only recommendations. It’s up to state and local authorities to ease mask mandates.

On Monday, California officials said they expect businesses to align with their current rules.

“We expect businesses in California to adhere to where the state is and move to implement these standards, or prepare for them, on June 15 as opposed to now,” Ghaly said.

It was a position echoed by L.A. County health officials.

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“Our teams are out notifying all of the chains that have made announcements nationally that they would be relaxing their masking requirements” that the state’s mandatory mask policy within stores statewide remains in effect, Ferrer said.

What role does Cal-OSHA play?

Another factor in how masking requirements might change — or not — after June 15 are California’s occupational health and safety standards, which are approved by a standards board and govern masking and physical distancing protocols at work sites.

Even in suggested changes Cal-OSHA is considering later this week, Ferrer said, “there is no indication that they are at all backing away from having at many work sites … the requirements around distancing and masking.”

“We’re going to go ahead and follow whatever Cal-OSHA asks our workplaces to do,” Ferrer said.

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money contributed to this report.


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