Woman wearing protective face mask buying grocery at a supermarket.
Credit: Getty Images | Luis Alvarez

Do You Still Need to Wear a Mask in the Grocery Store?

published May 26, 2021
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Wearing masks has become a way of life for many Americans over the past year in the battle against COVID-19. But the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidance earlier this month advising that people who are vaccinated no longer need to wear masks in certain settings. As a result, retailers and grocers like Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Walmart recently updated their rules, no longer requiring patrons to wear masks while shopping. So does that mean you should leave your mask at home? Here are all the factors to consider.

Unvaccinated People Should Continue to Mask Up

First, if you are unvaccinated, you are still at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 and you’ll want to continue wearing a mask and social distancing. While most states including New York have lifted their mask mandates for vaccinated people, states like California and Hawaii still require all adults to wear masks indoors. Restrictions are continuing to be relaxed by both states and retailers in accordance with the CDC, but they specify that these new guidelines apply to vaccinated people. The problem? We’re relying on people to be honest about their vaccination status and, as of this writing, only about 40% of Americans have been fully vaccinated

“Allowing individuals not to wear masks solely on the honor system is a bit risky, but without a universal tool to identify who is vaccinated and who isn’t there really is not a better way,” explained Dr. Summer Johnson McGee, Ph.D.CPH, dean of the School of Health Sciences at University of New Haven. “As a fully vaccinated person, I don’t worry about exposure because vaccines are highly effective, and I will continue to physically distance in stores.”

Other experts we spoke to agreed that the risk is minimal for healthy vaccinated people, regardless of whether people around them are unvaccinated. 

“If you’re fully vaccinated … and if you do encounter someone with COVID in the grocery store, the risk of you getting infected from that person is very small. And on top of that, the risk of you getting sick and winding up in the hospital is exceedingly small,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, infectious disease specialist and clinical professor emeritus at University of California Berkeley School of Public health. 

What if you are vaccinated, but you have children or others in your household who aren’t vaccinated?

“All of the data suggests that the vast majority of vaccinated people not only won’t get sick, but they won’t carry the virus or at least enough virus to infect somebody else,” said Dr. Swartzberg. “So let’s say that you were at a store, you have a young kid at home. If you’re vaccinated, there’s only a remote possibility of you getting infected. And there is even a more remote possibility that if you did get infected, that you could pass that virus [on to] somebody else in your household. So I can’t tell you there’s zero risk, but it’s very small.”

When in Doubt, Vaccinated People Should Follow Store Rules

Before you get rid of your stash of masks, be aware that while many large retailers are relaxing rules, some private businesses may still continue requiring masks.

“One of the things that the CDC says is that you should follow state or local guidelines including recommendations from businesses. The bottom line: If the store says you must wear a mask, you should comply,” advised Dr. Don Schaffner, extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor at Rutgers University. 

While the data supports loosening restrictions from a public health perspective, people need to make the decisions that are right for them. So if you know you or your loved ones are immunocompromised or you just don’t feel comfortable indoors without a mask, then go ahead and wear the mask, whether or not it’s required. 

“The individual can take from the public health message that the risk is very, very low, but the individual has to decide, is taking any amount of risk worth it?” said Dr. Swartzberg. With flu season always just around the corner, he says, masks, along with lots of hand-washing and sanitizing, may be a lifestyle change that sticks around to combat all kinds of pesky respiratory illnesses. “I think people here in the United States need to get used to the idea that it’s perfectly fine and if people want to wear a mask they should feel completely comfortable doing so.”