As millions across the U.S. vent about the pros and cons of vaccine and mask mandates, fashion organizations, retailers and store employees are equally divided about how to proceed as the Delta variant sends COVID-19 cases rising.
While President Biden called on state and local governments Thursday to offer $100 vaccine incentives, legislators in some states are seeking legal protections for people who aren’t vaccinated in the form of anti-discrimination laws.
As a major force in fueling the domestic economy, stores — large and small — have a lot to figure out in terms of keeping both their employees and shoppers healthy and happy. Walmart is now urging employees to get vaccinated and has doubled the incentive for associates to do so to $150.
As the largest private-sector employer, retail contributes $3.9 trillion to the annual U.S. GDP. Retail supports one in four U.S. jobs, or 52 million Americans. While the debate about mask and vaccine mandates is often cited as a political one, a spot check of store employees in different states indicated that it is more a matter of personal choice. And many want the freedom to make that choice.
One unvaccinated Foot Locker employee, who requested anonymity, said Thursday they were not in favor of the mask requirement for employees, nor the in-store signs reminding customers to wear them. “I feel like it should be an option for everybody, including workers. Everybody is different. Everybody has their own agenda and beliefs. You shouldn’t have to force anybody to wear anything.” the employee said.
While many stores and businesses have seen post-shutdown sales rebound and are counting on the back-to-school season to rev up sales, that recovery may be hampered as the Delta variant, which is said to be as contagious as chicken pox, ramps up. The majority of counties in the U.S. have high transmission rates. In some states such as Arkansas, where approximately 36 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, that hike is due to a low vaccine rate. In Florida, the inoculation rate is 48.5 percent just shy of the U.S. average of 49.1 percent. Surges in cases have also been seen in Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama, as well as Los Angeles county.
In response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent recommendation that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in COVID-19 hot spots, the National Retail Federation issued a statement Tuesday.
“Public health and safety is always the number-one priority for retailers large and small. To be sure, retailers will continue to follow the guidance of the CDC and other public health experts to protect our associates, their families and our customers. We want every business to remain open, we want to keep people employed, and we want to ensure that consumers have access to the goods and services they expect and need,” NRF said.
”It is truly unfortunate that mask recommendations have returned when the surest known way to reduce the threat of the virus is widespread vaccination. The CDC’s latest guidance underscores the urgency for more Americans to become fully vaccinated so that we can all emerge from this pandemic.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is encouraging members and the public to follow CDC and state safety guidelines, and to mask up whenever in stores or any enclosed spaces. The Union is also trying to provide members with as much information as possible on the efficacy, safety and availability of vaccines, “as well as helping to demystify the process of getting vaccinated,” an RWDSU spokeswoman said.
To that end, forums and panels have been held so members can learn and have their questions answered and to coordinate with some employers to facilitate vaccinations being offered at work sites. In addition, through negotiations with individual employers, paid sick days and access to COVID-19 leave (should an employee get sick) have been prioritized, the spokeswoman said.
The American Apparel and Footwear Association is not putting out any guidance at this time, nor is the National Council of Textile Organizations.
Can retail strike a balance?
Finding the right balance between health and safety concerns and individual liberty during a global pandemic is a worst-case scenario, according to the University of Wisconsin’s director of the Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation, Timothy Shiell.
“Generally speaking, private companies should have the right to determine how to balance health and safety concerns with employee liberties. Their profitability depends on it,” he said. “If they get the balance wrong, they can lose productivity and profits through employees objecting to the policy and taking other jobs: but on the other side, they can lose productivity and profits through sick leave.”
Shiell, who is also a professor of philosophy, cautioned that retailers should not forget what happened to the meatpacking industry when COVID-19 first struck last year. (Meatpacking plants were reportedly the source of an estimated 334,000 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. The economic toll stemming from those cases was $11.2 billion as of late April).
“In the absence of legal mandates, corporate decision makers should follow the facts as best they can,” he said. “Private companies should have the right to require mandatory vaccination proof or mandatory mask wearing for the unvaccinated. Whether it is wise to enforce that right is another question and should be in the hands of the company.”
Another question on many minds is: what’s to become of the fashion show’s return?
While many in the fashion industry have been anticipating the return of in-person shows this fall as a sure sign of normalcy, organizers are of course proceeding with measured steps.
“The health and wellness of our community for New York Fashion Week — and beyond — is a top CFDA priority,” a spokesman for the organization said. “We are of course monitoring the situation closely and on a daily basis, and are developing recommendations for Fashion Week based on CDC and government guidelines and mandates. We are working in tandem with IMG on this and will have more to share next month.”
What companies are doing
While Saks Fifth Avenue, Google, Facebook, The Washington Post and other companies are mandating vaccines for U.S. employees to return to work, others have held off doing so or are still ironing out policies. Apple, for example, has postponed its return-to-work date to October. It also reinstated a mask requirement Thursday for employees and shoppers in more than half of its roughly 270 domestic stores.
The New York Times informed staff in a memo Friday that the targeted start of its official return to the office of Sept. 7 is on ice. The company has decided to “push out“ its plans for a full return, “in light of the evolution of the virus, including new trends around the Delta variant” and updated CDC guidance on masking. While the offices remain open on a voluntary basis, anyone wishing to return a U.S. office must now submit proof of vaccination.
Executives at Amazon did not respond to requests for comment about their mask and vaccine policies. In light of the Delta variant and the CDC’s latest guidelines, Walmart is having fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor settings in substantial or high transmission areas. In a memo to all U.S.-based associates, the retailer wrote in bold lettering, “We are urging you to get vaccinated.” The company, however, said that it realized “a small number of our associates, cannot get vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons.”
The memo noted that employees can get the vaccine at no cost and that they are being offered at 5,100-plus Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies. In addition to the $150 incentive, the company is allowing staffers to get vaccinated on the clock with two hours of paid time off. It is also providing up to three days paid leave for any adverse reactions to the vaccine. Walmart will implement a new process for verification of vaccine status for U.S. associates that will be subject to local legal requirements. Details of that plan have not yet been revealed.
Walmart also has made the decision to require all market, regional and divisional associates, who work in multiple facilities and all corporate office associates to be vaccinated by Oct. 4, unless they have an approved exception.
Uniqlo’s approach varies market by market since the COVID-19 situation varies in each market and “the vaccine supply in each market is different.” according to a company spokesperson. Noting that the health and safety of employees remains paramount, the company said, “All employees are required to wear masks and we shall provide the full support, if our employees want to be vaccinated, either by making it easier for them to do so, or to help them to secure the vaccination supply if possible, depending on the market situation.”
Brookfield Properties is offering its 850 corporate employee options.
The company, for one, does require proof of vaccines. If an employee is vaccinated, there are no further protocols except for having to log into the company’s health tracker system if they have symptoms. Unvaccinated workers must be tested weekly for the coronavirus and they must wear masks in common areas when they cannot maintain a distance of six feet apart with others, in compliance with New York State guidelines. They must also complete a daily health tracker, a Brookfield Properties spokeswoman said.
Effective Tuesday and based on the CDC’s updated guidance, Target will require face coverings for all team members and it will strongly recommend face coverings for all guests in areas with substantial or high risk of transmission as defined by the CDC, according to a Target spokesperson. The retailer will continue to follow local mandates and closely monitor guidance from the CDC.
“We encourage our team members and guests to get the COVID-19 vaccine by offering vaccine appointments at nearly all CVS at Target locations and providing paid time and free Lyft rides to team members when they get their vaccines.” the Target spokesperson said.
A handful of store employees (all of whom requested anonymity) shared their views with WWD about mask and vaccine policies. Indicative of the nationwide discussion, their views were mixed. Even in the midst of a labor shortage so defined that “We’re Hiring” signs are posted on some New York City stores and some brands’ phone trees inform callers of employment opportunities, personal opinion and job security don’t seem to mix.
At the Old Navy store on West 34th Street in New York, one employee said she only wears a mask outdoors since she is fully vaccinated. Employees are not required to wear masks in the store.
“I think we have a don’t-question clause. They can’t ask you if you’re vaccinated,” she said, noting it’s an approach she believes is a good one. “Some people feel there are certain things wrong with the vaccine or it’s just a test. Everybody has different views.”
Signs in the store are cues for shoppers to wear masks and most of them do wear them, save for “a few stragglers,” she noted, though she said she generally feels comfortable going to work every day. Travel plans and protecting the safety of a relative were her incentives for getting inoculated. “But we really don’t ask employees or anybody if they’re vaccinated,” she said.
At the A.P.C. boutique in Los Angeles, an associate said she definitely feels comfortable wearing a mask. Vaccines were not required to return to work, but she expects that could change.
Employees at an Under Armour store in Oshkosh, Wis., continue to wear masks, as they have since the location reopened in June 2020.
“They haven’t dropped a policy yet where if you’re vaccinated you get to wear a mask or not. It’s required for everyone. It’s still an inconvenience especially when you see other stores lifting their policies,” one employee said. “Target lifted their policy. Restaurants that I go to, where they’re making food right in front of you, like Qdoba, have lifted their policy.”
From the Under Armour employee’s perspective, the inconvenience of wearing a mask isn’t about comfort. “If someone is vaccinated, they shouldn’t need to wear a mask. That’s just my personal opinion.”
Under Armour does not have a vaccine mandate but the majority of the Oshkosh team — about 95 percent — is vaccinated, but they are still required to wear masks. Having been vaccinated, the worker said he is not worried about interacting with shoppers. “I’m pretty healthy. I eat healthy and I stay in shape. As far as I know, I don’t have any underlying health conditions. With the vaccination, I am very sure I am not at risk,” they said. The debate is more along the lines of civil rights, they added. “There are reasons why you shouldn’t have to wear a mask or you shouldn’t have to get vaccinated, if you don’t want to. It’s the same thing as if people have at-home births and they don’t want their kids to have all the shots. Personally, I agree with certain policies that for kids to go to school, they need certain shots.”
At The Mall of America’s Abercrombie & Fitch store, one worker said hardly any employees are wearing masks.
“As a team, we feel very comfortable but also cautious at the same time,” the worker said. “Obviously, we’re not really enforcing them anymore. Pretty much our whole team has gotten vaccinated.”
Provided employees are being thoughtful of others around them and maintaining social distancing, people should be able to do what they want, she said. While the Abercrombie & Fitch store has signs up advising shoppers to wear masks, whether they choose to is a matter of an individual’s preference, the worker said. Social distancing is being maintained when engaging with shoppers and the floor is marked with circles and arrows as reminders.
With the Delta variant spiking cases in certain areas, the retailer’s district manager had scheduled a group call with area stores to discuss how people feel about wearing masks again. “I know the Hollister, one of our sister companies, in St. Cloud is starting to talk about wearing masks again,” the Abercrombie & Fitch employee said.
From her view, employees should have to be vaccinated, especially for those who work in large shopping malls like The Mall of America, where there are thousands of people around.
“That’s not only protecting yourself but others as well,” she said. “Yeah, not a lot of people know what’s in the vaccine or [potential] side effects. But I really feel we should all just get it done and over with so we don’t run into this second wave with the coronavirus. Maybe if we hit a second wave, we would be a lot more strict with it.”
At a Foot Locker store in Providence, one staffer said it is “unfortunate” that they are required to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. That has been the company’s policy since last year. Signs on the store’s door remind customers to wear masks, though doing so is not required.
Proof of vaccination was not a requirement for employees to return to work either. The unvaccinated employee said, “I just haven’t had the need to get it yet. I’m not against it nor am I for it. It’s too early for me.”
Social distancing is something he practices, and that should negate the need for a mask, he said. If he didn’t have to wear a mask, he would still stay six feet apart from shoppers. Most consumers are “very respectful” about keeping that distance. On the occasion where someone might be closer, he takes it upon himself to step further away rather than ask the shopper to do so.
At a Forever 21 store in Montgomery, Pa., it is up to the individual staff members to decide whether they want to wear a mask or not, one employee said. Having been fully vaccinated, she stopped wearing a mask during shifts about a month ago. Most of her coworkers are no longer wearing them either, she said.
Although the Montgomery store still has social distancing markers on the floor for forming lines, that isn’t necessarily still being enforced. Comfortable about being at work, she said employees did not have to prove they had been vaccinated to return to work. She said she doesn’t really have any opinions one way or the other about whether people should wear masks or be vaccinated.
“Now I feel like with the Delta variant, it might be a different story,” she admitted, adding that it might be a good idea for people to start wearing them again. However, that is not really being discussed among employees.
More than half the shoppers who have been frequenting the Forever 21 store are not wearing masks, she said, though that still hasn’t affected her interactions with consumers.
Editor’s note: This article was updated August 2 with information from Target.