Walmart won't enforce its own rules on mask-wearing because it fears staff could be attacked by shoppers angry at being challenged

By Mia Jankowicz

Shoppers who refuse to wear a face mask to visit Walmart will still be served, as the company seeks to protect its staff from "a physical confrontation," according to a CNN report.

Walmart had announced that as of July 20, face masks would be compulsory for all but those whose medical conditions prevent it, as Business Insider's Hayley Peterson reportedAt least 27 other retailers have recently required the same thing.

However, a training video seen by CNN tells management to let people who refuse to wear a mask "continue to shop."

Home Depot, Lowe's, CVS, and Walgreens have also said they'll serve customers without masks, CNN reported. 

Walmart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said in a statement to Business Insider: "We know there may be situations that may not make it possible for everyone to wear a face covering." In those situations, "we will allow them to shop in our stores and clubs," she said.

"Our goal is to keep associates from a physical confrontation situation, and our ambassadors will be trained on those exceptions to help reduce friction for the shopper," she added.

Not enforcing masks makes it a "public relations stunt," according to one critic

Walmart first announced its mask rule with a blog post explaining how it trained special "health ambassadors" whose job it is to stand at the store entrance and "remind those without a mask of our new requirements."

The company said that it that ambassadors would seek solutions when people refuse and recognize that some cannot wear masks on health grounds. 

But the health ambassadors are told in a training video not to impede customers who refuse physically. Instead, they inform a manager, "so they can determine the next steps," according to CNN.

The company does not rule out involving law enforcement, however. A Walmart spokesperson told CNN: "While we do try to find solutions for customers who are not wearing face coverings, from time to time, we do need to call police for assistance in those areas."

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, criticized the lack of firmer enforcement. He told CNN that if companies "are not requiring customers to wear a mask within their store, then they never had a requirement. All they had was a public relations stunt."

Walmart did not offer Business Insider a comment on the criticism, and did not respond to inquiries about asking security staff to enforce the rule

Masks are increasingly accepted — but it's still tough for retail workers

Walmart employee
A Walmart employee seen in a mask in this corporate-supplied image.

A Gallup poll released on July 6 showed that mask-wearing had become increasingly accepted in the US, with 85% of people saying they had worn one. Only 11% say they have not considered it.

In their stores, Garcia, Walmart's spokeswoman, emphasized that "virtually everyone either brings a mask or readily complies with the requirement."

However, retail staff have borne the brunt of numerous violent outbursts from some customers who refuse.  

Viral videos have shown anti-mask shoppers having outbursts over the issue. In early July, one woman was filmed destroying a mask display in an Arizona Target, while another customer in an Oregon Costco sat on the floor and refused to leave in an anti-mask protest.  

The issue has led to injuries — in late June, a 19-year-old McDonald's worker in California was physically attacked and racially abused by a customer who had been asked to put on a mask, as Business Insider's Kate Taylor reported

CBS Los Angeles reported that the employee confronted the man on July 15 at Ralphs's grocery store in Central Los Angeles and told the man he had to wear a face-covering or leave the establishment, a guideline required by Los Angeles County. 

The man rammed the employee with a shopping cart, and in response "she pepper-sprayed him and called the police," according to the report. 

In its blog post, Walmart said that around 65% of its 5,000 stores are in areas where there is already a statewide mask mandate. But the Retail Industry Leaders Association, of which Walmart is a member, wrote to governors on July 6 to ask for it to be imposed consistently across 50 states, CNN reported.