Walmart shoppers in Florida at the end of June.

Going into a Walmart or Sam’s Club store for the foreseeable future will require a face covering for the first time.

As the coronavirus rages on, with the U.S. seeing record cases of people contracting the illness on a daily basis over the last two weeks as several states reopened their economies or had lax public health requirements, Walmart is now insisting that shoppers and workers in its stores wear a face covering or mask at all times. The mandate takes effect July 20.

“This will give us time to inform customers and members of the changes, post signage and train associates on the new protocols,” Dacona Smith, Walmart’s U.S. chief operating officer wrote in a blog post.

“We know this is a simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities,” Smith added. “According to the CDC, face coverings help decrease the spread of COVID-19, and because the virus can be spread by people who don’t have symptoms and don’t know they are infected, it’s critically important for everyone to wear a face covering in public and social distance.”

It is the first time the largest retailer in the country has set a storewide mandate on mask-wearing, despite being one of the few retailers in the country that did not close during the initial weeks of economic closure due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Other major retailers, like Target, also do not have a storewide mandate on face coverings. It seems likely that stores will begin to follow the lead of Walmart.

The National Retail Federation recommended as much in a statement after Walmart’s decision, saying it hopes the move “is a tipping point in this public health debate.”

“Since the onset of the pandemic, retailers of all sizes have been on the front lines safely serving customers and supporting their communities,” the NRF said. “Stores are private businesses that can adopt policies permitted by law for the health and safety of their associates and their customers. Shopping in a store is a privilege, not a right. If a customer refuses to adhere to store policies, they are putting employees and other customers at undue risk.”

Major retailers that currently have a mask requirement in all stores include Apple, Costco and Best Buy.

In a brief note on the new mandate, which includes customers and workers, a Walmart spokesperson noted that “about 65 percent” of its 5,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the U.S. are in states “where there is already some form of government mandate on face coverings.” That this is only now a requirement for workers as well is telling, as Walmart has come under some legal fire for its workers falling ill, and in some instances dying from the virus.

But there is no federal mandate on anything regarding the coronavirus, let alone mask-wearing, which has been pushed by all public health officials as one of the surest ways of preventing community spread of the virus.

This, along with the politicization of mask-wearing by the Trump administration and some other Republican politicians, has led to numerous instances of people across the U.S. belligerently refusing to wear masks in stores. Video of such moments have become a viral sensation on social media. They also show retail workers taking the brunt of the outrage. People refusing to wear masks in the many videos available online often become violent with retail workers tasked with enforcement of the rule, screaming maskless in workers’ faces, throwing baskets and goods, even punching and kicking.

With Walmart being such a common shopping stop for people in the U.S., it seems inevitable that the retailer will have its own run-ins with customers who refuse to wear a face covering, particularly in states that have no public mandate, and still feel they have the right to enter a store, despite it being private property.

“We know some people have differing opinions on this topic,” Smith wrote in her post. “We also recognize the role we can play to help protect the health and well-being of the communities we serve by following the evolving guidance of health officials like the CDC.”

In an effort to combat the trend of non-mask wearing in stores among some members of the public, Walmart and Sam’s Club stores will all operate with a single customer entrance. Those entrances will have a “heath ambassador,” a new role at Walmart, who will “remind those without a mask of our new requirements.” They will also “receive special training to help make the process as smooth as possible for customers” and “will work with customers who show up at a store without a face covering to try and find a solution.”

Asked how exactly Walmart intends to deal with customers who refuse to wear a face mask, a spokesperson referred to Smith’s blog post, but added: “If there is someone who just refuses to wear a mask, our goals is to keep our associates from a physical confrontation situation. We believe this requirement will result in many more people wearing masks in our stores and clubs that before and that’s ultimately what we are aiming for.”

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