Starting next Wednesday, Kroger — parent company of Smith’s supermarkets — will require shoppers to wear masks nationwide as U.S. coronavirus cases soar.
A growing number of national retailers – including Walmart – are switching customer mask policy to a requirement.
“We are taking this extra step now because we recognize additional precautions are needed to protect our country,” the nation’s largest supermarket chain said Wednesday in a statement. Kroger said it would make an exception for customers with medical reasons as well as small children.
On Wednesday, Walmart also said it will change its mask policy to require customers to wear them when shopping.
Walmart and Sam’s Club will start requiring masks at stores and clubs nationwide starting Monday, July 20. Best Buy and Starbucks started requiring consumers nationwide wear masks Wednesday.
Smith’s supermarket, one of the Kroger family of brands, has locations across Northern Nevada, including stores in Reno, Sparks and Carson City.
The shift among major retailers toward mandating masks on customers comes as the number of American deaths has spiraled upward to more than 135,000.
Major retailers previously stopped short of requiring masks on customers as the death rate slowed its climb in late spring and many states “reopened” their economies by lifting stay-at-home orders.
The debate over wearing masks also became a political one as many Americans argued requiring them violated their personal freedom. In April, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine under fire by critics withdrew a requirement to wear masks in retail stores, saying some Ohioans found the mandate “offensive.”
But with Walmart and Kroger – the nation’s No. 1 and No. 3 retailers – requiring masks, it may prompt scores of other retail chains to follow their example.
Kroger did not acknowledge the controversy that has grown around masks, instead citing public health recommendations by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walmart mentioned the debate in passing, but also cited the CDC.
“We know some people have differing opinions on this topic. 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,” Walmart officials said in a blog post on Wednesday.
So far, COVID-19 has killed one fifth the number of Americans that died from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, to which the pandemic is frequently compared.
But the current outbreak has killed many times more Americans than major historic disasters (the 9-11 terrorist attacks killed 3,000; the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 killed 12,000) and the U.S. death toll has now exceeded most U.S. wars, including World War I, which killed 117,000.
Cincinnati-based Kroger is the nation’s largest supermarket chain. Besides Kroger stores, the grocer operates several regional supermarket chains in 35 states, including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Ralphs, Mariano’s, Fry’s, Smith’s, King Soopers, QFC and others. The company employs 500,000 workers nationwide and operates nearly 2,800 stores.
In late April, Kroger switched from encouraging employees to wear masks to requiring them.
Kroger has taken a number of steps to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, including: capping the number of customers allowed to shop in its stores; increased sanitation of stores; installed plexiglass partitions at cash registers; added floor decals to show customers how to maintain social distance at the checkout; and set special shopping times for senior customers and others more vulnerable to infection in several markets.
USA Today contributed to this report.
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