Customers are seen outside the Kings Food Market on Valley Road, where masks are optional, but encouraged for customers. DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA / STAFF

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

 Corporate policies appear to require employees of all supermarkets in Montclair to wear masks or other face coverings — but those requirements don’t extend to customers. 

Still, the supermarkets are asking customers to voluntarily mask up — and on recent visits to the stores, many or most were.

Any customer entering the Acme on Valley Road sees a sign: “Per CDC guidance, masks [are] encouraged for all customers in areas with high and substantial COVID-19 transmission rates.”

As of this week, every New Jersey county is classified as an area of high transmission by the CDC. A few weeks ago, Essex and most other counties were classified one notch lower on the CDC’s scale, as areas of substantial transmission, but case counts have been increasing steadily as the ultra-contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to dominate U.S. cases. And, as the sign at Acme suggests, the CDC encourages indoor masking for all people — regardless of vaccination status — in such areas.

Gov. Phil Murphy has also encouraged masking in indoor public places, but stopped short of instituting a new mandate since lifting an indoor mask requirement in May. 

“I think everyone should wear a mask when they are going inside. We need to take care of each other,” Jessica Johnson, a Montclair resident who was doing her weekly shopping on Aug. 20, said.

Acme announced a masking requirement for all store employees earlier this month. At the time, United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 152 criticized it for not requiring the same of customers, pointing to the CDC guidance.

“Customers … are not required to wear a mask and may shop without a mask even where such individuals are not vaccinated,” the union wrote in a statement released Aug. 3. “The failure of Acme Markets to conform to CDC mask recommendations unnecessarily exposes our members and their families to the Delta Variant and is completely unacceptable.”

The company had said on Twitter in May that all customers were required to wear masks at the time. On Aug. 1, it said on Twitter masks were required “until the State and Local mandates dictate otherwise,” but by then, no requirement was in place in New Jersey. And by Aug. 13, it said signage in substantial and high-transmission areas was in place to “encourage customers to follow the CDC’s mask guidance.”

Montclair Local sent messages by phone and email to the corporate public relations offices of Acme and Whole Foods about mask policing in their stores last week, but has not yet received any response. A person who answered a phone number listed for media inquiries on Kings Food Market’s COVID-19 safety page said she no longer works with the supermarket chain, since Kings stores were purchased by Acme earlier this year. 

A sign at the Kings on Valley Road, like the one at Acme, encourages but doesn’t require masks for customers.

The FAQ on the supermarket chain’s website says protective face coverings — masks or face shields — are required for associates. Face shields are allowed in cases where medical reasons prevent a store associate from wearing cloth masks, the site says. But it also includes dated information, saying an executive order from Murphy requires masks for customers. 

On a visit Aug. 20, all customers and employees appeared to be wearing masks. One customer was heading inside without a mask, but seemed to remember on his way in, quickly pulling a mask out of his pocket and putting it on. 

“I am vaccinated and I still wear my mask when I am outside. I have a keychain with hand sanitizer with me all the time. This thing is not over yet,” Ana Williams said in front of Kings. 

She said that most people wear masks inside the stores she has visited.

“I’ve only seen one or two people that don’t wear a mask. I give them a side eye,” she said.

Whole Foods says on its website customers who are fully vaccinated against coronavirus are welcome inside without masks, but unvaccinated customers are asked to continue to wear masks indoors. Masks are required for store employees in locations of substantial or high transmission, such as Essex County, and for any team member who has not provided proof of vaccination to the company. 

In a visit to the store’s Bloomfield Avenue location Aug. 20, all employees and most customers were wearing masks. A single customer who went without a mask didn’t appear to be approached by any store employee or other customers about it.

“I don’t mind wearing a mask indoors. I kind of got used to it. It doesn’t bother me,” Rodolfo Chacin said outside Whole Foods. “I saw one person inside without a mask but didn’t bother. To each their own, I suppose.” 

Helen Collado, outside Whole Foods, said she has extra masks in her car, just in case someone needs them. She started carrying masks when she saw how her family members and friends would forget their masks. 

“I think we should continue wearing masks regardless if you are vaccinated or not,” Collado said. “With this new variant, we don’t know what is going to happen next.” 

Joanna Vega, also outside Whole Foods, said she hasn’t been inside a supermarket without a mask, but she takes it off when she is outside. She said she wants more people to get vaccinated so the mask becomes less necessary.

“I just don’t want us to go back to a mask mandate or lockdown again. We were doing so well, we can go back to that,” Vega said.

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