“Stronger Together. Winning Together. Let’s help each other stay safe,” says the coronavirus Web page of Southeastern Grocers, parent company of Winn-Dixie, which operates hundreds of stores across the South.
Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens, Kroger and Publix announced last week that they will mandate mask-wearing at stores nationwide. The National Retail Federation has encouraged retailers to set nationwide mask policies to protect shoppers and employees, and nearly 30 states now require masks to be worn in public places.
Southeastern announced at the end of last week that Winn-Dixie stores would not be requiring masks from customers because it did not want to cause undue friction between customers and employees.
“Our associates have seen that mask mandates are a highly charged issue with our customers. We do not want to put our associates in a position to navigate interpersonal conflict or prohibit customers from shopping in our stores,” Joe Caldwell, director of corporate communications and government affairs for Southeastern Grocers, wrote in an email this past weekend.
However, on Monday afternoon, Southeastern reversed its position, with Caldwell attributing the change to customer feedback. The about-face came a little more than an hour after Trump tweeted a picture of himself in a black mask and called mask-wearing patriotic.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with President Trump’s tweet,” Caldwell said.
Winn-Dixie has about 500 stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, all states that went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Trump wore a mask publicly for the first time July 11 during a visit to a military hospital but until Monday had been otherwise dismissive about mask-wearing.
As many grocers did at the outset of the pandemic, Southeastern Grocers adjusted store hours in March to provide additional time for restocking and extra cleaning. On June 25, Winn-Dixie stores resumed normal operating hours, eliminating that extra time for store cleaning, even as coronavirus cases continue to surge across a wide swath of the United States and states begin reversing or slowing reopening schedules.
And although the grocery chain installed floor decals and plexiglass partitions at registers and checks workers’ temperatures daily, it has “allowed” workers to wear face masks and gloves rather than requiring them. While Winn-Dixie has had unions at points in its past, none of its stores are currently unionized.
In an editorial last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed the latest science showing that adherence to universal masking policies reduces virus transmission.
Increasingly, retail employees have been pulled into conflicts about mask-wearing. A security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan was killed after trying to enforce mask requirements. At stores like one Trader Joe’s in California, videos of customer conflicts over mask-wearing have gone viral. And mask rage has become a tool in partisan wrangling.
On July 10, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, representing 1.3 million workers — including employees of Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, Vons and other major grocery chains — partnered with a coalition of health experts to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on governors, members of Congress and the Trump administration to make masks mandatory in all 50 states.
Customer response to Winn-Dixie’s no-mask-required announcement last week was swift and binary.
Some customers took to social media praising the supermarket chain for “offering adults a place to shop without wearing a mask! This is America! We should have freedom!” Others tweeted their disapprobation: “We will not be shopping at your store. Enjoy your Grim Reaper special.”
Bob Hess, 65, is a project manager for a government contractor in Panama City, Fla. He’s been living in an RV next to his house since Hurricane Michael hit in October 2018, waiting for insurance money to rebuild. He says the new normal keeps getting worse. On Sunday he went to his local Walmart in Lynn Haven.
“They had two of three entrances closed and were forcing everyone to queue up in 92-degree heat. My wife and I said forget this, let’s buzz over to Winn-Dixie,” he says.
No lines, no signs about masks, almost no customers wearing masks.
“If I don’t have to wear a mask I’m not going to,” he says. “I think this has gone way overboard. Masks are shielding our bodies from what they are meant to do to build up immunity.”
This is not the first time in recent weeks Winn-Dixie has swum against the stream. In June, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, many organizations and municipalities expunged the word “Dixie” from their names because of its connections with slavery and the Confederacy.
Within hours of a report on TMZ that Winn-Dixie was considering changing its 100-year-old name, Caldwell, the Southeastern Grocers spokesman, said in a statement that the company had no immediate plans to do that, although it affirmed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“At Southeastern Grocers we’re committed to cultivating an inclusive culture and community that promotes belonging, inclusion and diversity. As such, we stand against racism and support the Black Lives Matter movement across our country,” the statement said.
Caldwell said Monday that there were no immediate plans to rename the grocery chain.
“Our Winn-Dixie banner has proudly served our communities for nearly 100 years, however, many things have changed during that time,” he said.
Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com, says Winn-Dixie’s earlier no-mask policy was a dog whistle of sorts, meant to align the company with the values and political stance of its customers.
“If you look back a couple weeks ago, when Aunt Jemima and Eskimo pies came under fire [for their cultural insensitivity], people were calling for Winn-Dixie to change its name. This is tied to that. Their core audience is Trump supporters,” Lempert said.