Bucking a recent trend by major retailers heeding health experts' guidelines to curb the coronavirus, Winn-Dixie parent Southeastern Grocers will not require customers to wear face masks at its 550 stores in seven states.
The Jacksonville, Florida-based chain said Sunday it doesn't want to get involved in an issue that's proved contentious, leading to viral meltdowns and even deadly violence in retail settings.
"Mask mandates are a highly charged issue with our customers," the company told CBS News in an email. "We do not want to put our associates in a position to navigate interpersonal conflict or prohibit customers from shopping in our stores."
Southeastern Grocers is instead calling on the state and federal governments "to remove the challenging burden of enforcement from front-line employees and make masks mandatory by law," it said in its statement.
The supermarket chain's stance on whether its workers wear masks has changed recently. Southeastern Grocers said in its emailed statement that employees must wear facial coverings at work unless they have a medical reason, a departure from its previous policy of voluntary mask-wearing by employees.
The company in late June said it would stop offering refunds, exchanges, rain checks and self-service offerings to help ensure the safety of its customers and workers by minimizing face-to-face contact situations.
The chain runs retail locations that include in-store pharmacies and liquor stores under the Winn-Dixie, Bi-Lo, Harveys Supermarket and Fresco y Más banners in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Many retail and grocery workers have expressed concern about customers declining to wear masks, and the issue has provoked conflicts in stores. In May, a Family Dollar store security guard was shot and killed in Flint, Michigan, after telling a customer her child had to wear a face mask to enter the store, the county prosecutor's office said.
Walmart, Target and CVS are among the major retailers enacting policies requiring both customers and employees to wear a mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The disease is surging in many parts of the country and has killed more than 143,000 Americans.