After saying it would not require shoppers to wear face masks, Winn-Dixie parent Southeastern Grocers is reversing course and joining a slew of major retailers heeding health experts' guidelines to curb the coronavirus. The company said late Monday that, starting next week, customers will have to cover their mouths and noses before entering its 550 stores in seven states.
"The majority of our stores are under either a local or state government mandate, and given the continued rise of positive COVID cases in our communities across the Southeast, beginning Monday, July 27, we will be requiring masks to be worn by customers to help reduce the spread of the disease," a spokesperson said in an email to CBS News.
"We believe that the enforcement should be placed upon our state and federally elected officials, and we will continue to work with our peers in the retail industry to advocate for this sensible mandate to be passed into law to remove the burden from employers and their heroic frontline associates."
The statement marks an about-face for the Jacksonville, Florida-based chain, which on Sunday said it didn't want to get involved in the issue that's proved contentious for retailers.
"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."
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.