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Workers worried retailers ditching masks on vaccine honor system

As Walmart and a handful of major retailers dropped mask requirements in their stores, some frontline workers are pushing back on concerns that the new policy will bring them greater health and safety risks.

The world’s largest retailer, along with Costco Wholesale Corp. and Trader Joe’s, were among the first companies to ease their mask policy for vaccinated shoppers following a recommendation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now Starbucks, Publix, Target and Sam’s Club are among other national retailers that are allowing vaccinated customers to shop without masks in U.S. locations where there are no state or local mask mandates.

But food and grocery workers are concerned that the rule change, which largely relies on a vaccination honor system, brings them greater health and safety risk.

“Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” said Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers, a major retail and grocery union. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”

Perrone called on state governors to maintain mask mandates in place, following the examples of New Jersey and Hawaii, saying the pandemic is far from over. Governors in many states moved quickly to drop mask mandates for vaccinated people.

Still, even with the CDC recommendation, local governments are able to impose tighter restrictions.

“Your anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers are not necessarily going to be honest with people about whether they’ve been vaccinated or not,” Nancy Baxter, head of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said on Bloomberg Television, adding that the CDC’s move may lead to a surge in infections. “You have this honor system that I think is going to break down.”

Beyond retail, other venues are easing their mask requirements without getting rid of face coverings completely. Walt Disney World Resort made masks optional in common outdoor areas but still require them indoors, on all attractions, theaters and transportation.

Walt Disney Co.’s Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek said on Bloomberg Television last week that he expects a mask-loosening policy for both customers and workers as its parks ramp up in the crucial summer months. “We think that’s in the future for us — in the near future, in fact,” he said.

The biggest Las Vegas casino operators including Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Las Vegas Sands Corp., also told vaccinated guests they can stop wearing masks, following new guidance from state and federal regulators.

WATCH NOW: Even with mask mandate lifted, Richmond-area businesses have different policies, preferences on face coverings

After more than a year of wearing face coverings in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Virginia residents can breathe a little easier now, but the switch to a mask-free life won’t happen all at once, everywhere.

Shoppers are likely to run into different policies and preferences depending on where they go, as area businesses are approaching mask-wearing in different ways. People who are going out shopping or for recreation and entertainment probably should keep a mask handy anyway, and be prepared to put it on.

The transitional shift comes after Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday lifted the mask-wearing mandate for most public gathering places in Virginia for people who are fully vaccinated.

But employees at Lex’s of Carytown formalwear store and the wellness store Mamie’s Apothecary are still wearing masks, and signs are now posted on the front doors of the stores urging customers to wear masks “to protect those around you.”

“I feel it’s a little too soon, for me, for it to be lifted,” said Lisa McSherry, who owns the two stores in Carytown.

The health of her employees is paramount to keeping her businesses operating, she said.

“Right now, the staff has told me they are comfortable continuing to wear the masks,” she said. “We have gone from making it a mandate to, ‘We still want this right now.’ The problem is without any clear-cut policy, there are still just too many questions.”

But at Tom Leonard’s Farmer’s Market just off West Broad Street in western Henrico County, mask-wearing is now optional for both customers and employees. Like many other retailers, the store has placed plexiglass partitions at the checkout registers.

“We’re going to leave those [barriers] because the cashiers would prefer it,” owner Tom Leonard said.

The store also will maintain enhanced sanitation processes and encourage employees to wash their hands every 30 minutes, he said.

“If people want to wear a mask or not wear a mask, that is fine,” Leonard said. “What is going to make a difference is washing your hands and having a safe, clean and sanitary place.”

The Richmond Flying Squirrels will follow the governor’s lifting of the mask mandate starting with Tuesday night’s game at The Diamond, with vaccinated fans no longer required to wear a mask.

The team is still operating with a reduced capacity, but it plans to open at full capacity on June 1.

Other business owners say that, while they have loosened their expectations that everyone must wear a mask, their employees who have face-to-face contact with customers still want to wear masks themselves and are still asking or at least prefer that customers wear masks.

At World of Mirth, a toy store in Carytown, customers who are older than 5 years old and are unvaccinated are being asked to wear masks. Employees will continue to wear masks.

Owner Thea Brown said the policy continues the “strict procedures” that the store has had in place since it reopened to the public last July. The policy helps protect both shoppers and store employees, she said.

“Retail and service workers have been unfairly put in the position to enforce mask and social distancing mandates over the last year, and it’s been exhausting to be honest,” Brown said. “We are hopeful that people will continue being empathetic towards their fellow Richmonders and help us keep everyone safe while shopping with us.”

Call Federal Credit Union lifted the mask requirement at its area branches for vaccinated customers and employees effective Monday.

“We are ready to see your smiling faces again,” wrote John West, the credit union’s president and CEO, in an email to its members. “As with other public places, those who have not yet received the vaccine will still be expected to wear masks to protect those who continue to face COVID-related risks and cannot be immunized.”

Many local restaurants say they’re taking a hybrid approach to mask-wearing with customers and workers. Those include EAT Restaurant Partners, the largest independently owned restaurant group in the Richmond area, where they’re leaving the decision up to guests.

“All our associates and guests who still wish to wear their masks whether they are vaccinated or not are 100% welcome to continue to do so. We only ask you, our dear guests, to have patience and empathy with our community as we transition back to normalcy,” the group posted on social media and its website in regard to the policy at all 16 of its local restaurants.

Other restaurants, such as the recently opened The Feed Store in Goochland, posted signs asking guests to continue to wear masks inside since some employees haven’t yet had a chance to get fully vaccinated.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg, one of Virginia’s major theme parks, said on its website that face coverings will no longer be required for its guests or those going to Water Country USA who are “fully vaccinated in accordance with CDC guidance.”

“We will not require proof of vaccine, but ask our guests to respectfully comply with our revised policy,” the company said. “All Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA park employees will be required to continue to wear face coverings at this time. The safety of our guests, ambassadors and animals in our care remains our top priority. We will continue to monitor and address this changing environment as necessary.”

Kings Dominion in northern Hanover County is still requiring masks to be worn by guests and customers, according to its website. A park representative did not respond by deadline Monday about whether the park would be changing its policy.

But at Cedar Point in Ohio, which is owned by the same company as Kings Dominion, face masks aren’t required for guests.

Some of the largest national retail chains also are relaxing mask-wearing policies, but not all.

For instance, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, said that “vaccinated customers and members are welcome to shop without a mask,” according to a letter from Walmart executives, while unvaccinated shoppers are asked to keep wearing masks in stores.

On the other hand, the grocery chain Kroger is still holding to a mask requirement for now.

“At this time, the Kroger family of companies continues to require everyone in our stores to wear masks,” the company said in a statement. The chain said it is encouraging its employees to get vaccinated by offering a $100 one-time payment to employees who receive the recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Grocery retailer Wegmans said it is “communicating first to our employees and will have more information later in the week.”

Convenience store chain Wawa said that “where permitted, we welcome fully vaccinated customers to shop without masks, while asking all others to continue wearing masks.

Wawa associates will continue to wear masks as we evaluate our processes further.”

Some local stores are being more cautious.

Chop Suey Books, a bookstore on West Cary Street in Richmond, is not only still requiring face masks, but also still requiring customers to make an appointment to shop in the store or to do online shopping with curbside pickup.

“It definitely looks like we are going to get to the point where people will not have to wear masks, but we wanted to go slower on that decision-making,” said Ward Tefft, the founder and owner of Chop Suey Books.

Tefft said he would like to see the vaccination and infection rates drop even more before he opens the store back up to normal shopping, which he thinks might be by August or September.

“We have gotten enormous support from the community,” Tefft said of online and appointment shopping and curbside pickup.

At Franco’s Fine Clothier, a men’s clothing retailer with two locations in the Richmond area, the new policy is one of flexibility and customer preference. Co-owner Kevin Reardon said most of the stores’ employees have been vaccinated.

“If someone comes in and says, ‘I would prefer to wear mine [a mask], our salespeople will, too,” Reardon said. “It is more of an individual’s choice. We want to make sure people are comfortable when they come in. With the mandate [lifted], we hope people will feel better about going out and doing things.”

Warmer weather equals traffic jams in Fredericksburg area

It was a Sunday afternoon, about 2:30, and traffic was crawling through the Fredericksburg area.

On northbound Interstate 95, the train of vehicles stretched as far as the eye could see. The backup started north of Fredericksburg and ran south to Thornburg, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

On northbound U.S. 1, a line of cars stretched from the stoplight at the U.S. 17 and Butler Road intersection, across the Falmouth Bridge to the Cowan Boulevard area.

Traffic backed up on side streets along U.S. 1, too, as drivers navigated the clogged arteries.

And the summer travel season hasn’t even started yet. Memorial Day weekend, and the end of the month, is the traditional start of the travel season.

With the light summer traffic of 2020, when travel plummeted because of the pandemic, maybe local drivers forgot how bad it could get.

If recent weekends are an indicator, the summer of 2021 will be a crowded one on Fredericksburg-area roads.

Weekend traffic on I–95 between State Route 3 in Fredericksburg and U.S. 17 in Stafford County is twice as heavy as 2020, according to VDOT data.

For instance, 37,944 vehicles traveled that stretch of southbound I–95 on Saturday, April 18, 2020, according to VDOT. Northbound traffic that day totaled 36,737. Sunday’s traffic was slightly lighter on the interstate.

A year later, on Saturday, April 17, 79,738 southbound vehicles and 79,084 northbound vehicles traveled through that stretch of I–95.

The local traffic situation is exacerbated by several major road projects in the region. I–95 is one long work zone, from just south of the Route 3 interchange to the North Stafford area.

Those projects will impact traffic all summer.

While there are few local alternatives to avoid the congestion, there is another option to I–95 that could help ease local traffic.

In 2017, in an effort to alleviate I-95 congestion with the interstate projects set to start, VDOT recommended that some drivers should consider using U.S. 301 as an alternative.