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Trader Joe’s, Morton Williams Attract Criticism for Easing Mask Requirements

Other NYC grocers including Westside Market and Zabar’s are keeping their mask requirements in place, despite new CDC guidance

People wear protective face masks outside the Morton Williams supermarket in NoHo.
Morton Williams is no longer requiring face masks for fully vaccinated customers
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Some NYC grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s and Morton Williams, are easing up on mask requirements this week in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that New York moved ahead to adopt the relaxed mask guidelines recently issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The move has sparked controversy among some New Yorkers who are clashing on whether to keep wearing masks without government regulations in place.

At Trader Joe’s, fully vaccinated customers will no longer be required to wear masks, in accordance with the new guidance that the CDC announced last week. However, employees won’t ask for proof of vaccination among maskless customers; instead, the company is implementing an honor system and hoping that unvaccinated customers will still wear masks. Workers will still be required to wear masks for the duration of their shifts.

“We are trusting our customers to follow CDC guidelines,” Trader Joe’s spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel said in an email.

NYC supermarket chain Morton Williams initially released a similar set of guidelines outlining that the company would not be requiring fully vaccinated customers to wear masks starting on Wednesday. The news, delivered in an email newsletter to customers on Monday, set off fiery reactions among the chain’s shoppers, the New York Post reports.

Hours after Morton Williams sent out the initial email, the chain followed up with another email softening its earlier announcement. The supermarket specified that it would be putting out signs encouraging everyone to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, and customers should “be respectful to those who do not feel comfortable,” according to the Post.

The follow-up email then set off another round of incendiary reactions among customers who advocated for ditching masks. Morton Williams co-owner Avi Kaner told the Post that they did not expect “the level of passion” on both sides of the issue. A Morton Williams staffer at the chain’s Kips Bay location confirmed that the stores are now recommending that everyone wear masks, although they are not requiring it. Employees will still be wearing masks.

Grocers including Whole Foods, Aldi’s, and Costco, as well as other national food chains like Starbucks and Chipotle, have also announced that they will be adopting the CDC’s relaxed mask-wearing guidances this week.

The move toward pre-pandemic life is garnering pushback from worker unions. The president of UFCW, a top grocery workers union in the U.S., with members in New York, said in a statement last week that the CDC’s new guidance is “confusing” and “fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks.” UFCW is pushing for the CDC to further clarify its guidelines and outline more protections for employees who are now facing daily work around unmasked customers.

Other grocery stores are taking a different approach. Westside Market will also keep requiring all customers to wear masks, a staffer at the chain’s East Village location confirmed. Specialty grocery store Citarella and NYC institution Zabar’s on the Upper West Side will also keep their mask requirements in place, as will Key Foods locations in Flushing and Sunnyside.

Still, these mask-wearing policies appear to be a moving target. An employee who answered the phone at the Whole Foods in Union Square said the store will still be requiring all customers to wear masks. But when Eater reached out to Whole Foods for clarification, a spokesperson pointed to the company’s website, which states that masks are optional. An employee at a Western Beef near Chelsea Market didn’t know the store’s policy and had to check with a manager, who told Eater that face coverings are still required.

Despite the patchwork of mask-wearing policies, initial reports are indicating that people are returning to stores as online grocery sales dropped. In April, sales dropped by 10 percent to $8.4 billion compared to the previous month, according to a recent Brick Meets Click/Mercatus grocery shopping survey.

Update, May 20, 11:30 a.m.: This story has been updated to clarify Whole Foods’s mask policy and to include Western Beef’s mask policy.

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