CORONAVIRUS

Walmart, Sam's Club to require masks starting July 20

Decision follows similar moves by Costco, Starbucks, Best Buy and Menards

Shoppers wearing protective masks walk outside a Walmart Inc. store in Torrance, Calif., on May 19, 2020. The retailer w
Shoppers wearing protective masks walk outside a Walmart Inc. store in Torrance, Calif., on May 19, 2020. The retailer will require customers at all U.S. stores to wear masks starting July 20. (Bloomberg photo by Patrick T. Fallon)

The nation’s largest retailer, Walmart, will require customers to wear face coverings inside all of its namesake and Sam’s Club stores, a mandate that now may become more widely mimicked by other stores amid a COVID-19 spike although it has proved difficult to enforce.

Walmart said Wednesday the policy will take effect Monday to allow time to inform customers and train workers.

Currently, about 65 percent of its more than 5,000 stores and clubs are located in areas where there already is some form of government mandate for face coverings — but not Iowa.

According to Walmart, the company has 58 supercenters, two discount stores and nine Sam’s Clubs in Iowa, employing nearly 17,000 people.

While Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has asked Iowans to practice social distancing and mask wearing in public, she said she won’t require it.

“I trust Iowans. I believe in Iowans,” she said Wednesday afternoon in a radio interview. ”There’s no way to enforce it. Most of the states or entities that have done that, they’ve actually gone as far as to say we’re not going to enforce it, so it’s just kind of a feel good. ... I wear one if I can’t social distance but I’m not going to mandate it.”

Arkansas-based Walmart joins a growing list of retailers filling the role of states and the federal government that have not issued mandates on an issue that has been highly politicized by President Donald Trump.

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Given Walmart’s clout as the nation’s largest retailer, its decision is expected to push others to issue similar mandates.

Kohl’s announced Wednesday that starting Monday it also will require customers to wear masks inside its department stores. Kohl’s said about 70 percent of its locations already were covered by government mask orders, though its 18 Iowa stores were not.

Shortly after Walmart’s announcement, supermarket chain Kroger said it, too, would follow suit starting July 22.

Last week, Starbucks announced that customers who visit its company-owned cafe locations will be required to wear face coverings. The policies at Starbucks and also at Best Buy went into effect Wednesday.

Only a handful of major retailers, including American Eagle Outfitters and Apple, has a mask mandate for customers for all stores. Costco Wholesale Club was one of the first major retailers to require face coverings for all customers at all stores.

Home improvement store Menards also requires masks of its customers at all sites.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, said in a statement it hopes Walmart’s move will be a “tipping point in this public health debate.”

Retailers had been hesitant to issue chain-wide mandates for fear of angering some customers. They also didn’t want to have their workers play the role of enforcers. It was already hard enough to get some customers to comply even in the states that had the mandates.

However, the recent surge of new virus cases — particularly in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona — has left them with no choice, retail experts say.

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“I think Walmart’s decision will give cover to other retailers to require masks,” said Michael J. Hicks, an economist at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. “I applaud Walmart and others for stepping in.”

Bryan Eshelman, a managing director in the retail practice at consultancy AlixPartners, noted that retailers needed to step in to reduce their own health risks and that having a virus case is disruptive.

“It is a business risk that they need to manage for the safety of employees and customers,” he said.

Eshelman added that he believes making shoppers comply with the mask protocols will be easier now that wearing masks is becoming more of the norm.

Still, Walmart is taking no chances, making sure to have a new strategy in place to enforce the mask protocols.

It said Wednesday it will create the role of “health ambassador” at its Walmart stores and will station them near the entrance to remind customers without masks of its new requirements. These workers, who will be wearing black polo shirts, will receive special training to “help make the process as smooth as possible for customers.”

Walmart said it’s currently working on different options for customers who don’t show up with a face mask.

As for Sam’s Club, employees at the entrance will follow the same process with its members, reminding them of its requirements to wear a face covering when shopping. Complimentary masks will be provided.

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Last week, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents Walmart, Best Buy and other major chains, publicized a letter it sent to governors to mandate store customers to wear face coverings. It said the hodgepodge of rules around the country has created confusion for shoppers and that has led to conflict between customers and workers trying to enforce rules.

The National Governors Association said last week its members are discussing the letter.

Social media is full of videos capturing clashes between customers who are asked to wear masks and employees who are under orders to make sure people wear them.

In May, authorities said a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Mich., was shot and killed after telling a customer her child had to wear a face mask to enter the store.

The Associated Press and Rod Boshart of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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