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Winn-Dixie announces new mask requirements

Parent company Southeastern Grocers makes the move after previous policy attracted criticism.

Winn-Dixie is joining other retailers, saying it will require face masks in stores after criticism its policy wasn’t strict enough.

Shoppers will be required to wear masks in stores beginning July 27.

The chain is owned by Jacksonville-based Southeastern Grocers, which also operates Fresco y Más stores. Last week, the grocer released a statement that it was following local mask laws and “strongly encouraging those who are medically able to wear a face covering.” Still, the grocer said it didn’t want to put its employees in any conflict by making them enforce mask requirements.

“We do not want to cause undue friction between our customers and associates by regulating mask mandates, and we strongly encourage state officials to lead the way in regulating these type of safety mandates,” the statement said.

Some took that to mean Southeastern Grocers was taking a stand against mask requirements while other retailers from Walmart and Publix to CVS and Walgreens unrolled their own. USA Today wrote a story about Winn-Dixie’s policy with the phrase ‘Grim Reaper Special’ in the headline. The Washington Post wrote a story that said the grocer not requiring masks illustrated “the partisanship of the mask divide.”

But Winn-Dixie says the bulk of its 500 stores are under local mask laws, which it has been enforcing.

“We hope to more clearly emphasize what has always been most important to our company during this pandemic and before: the safety of our customers, associates and communities,” spokesman Joe Caldwell said in a statement.

Without a federal or Florida mask mandate, local counties and cities have passed mask laws of their own. In Tampa Bay, that means Winn-Dixie had employees stationed by doors handing out free masks. The chain says it has signs reminding shoppers of the mandates as well as announcement reminders of the laws over the loudspeakers.

Related: Highly irate:’ Tampa Bay mask rules spur hundreds of police calls

Southeastern Grocers says it has signs encouraging mask use and regular announcements at locations that aren’t under local mask orders.

“This unprecedented period requires a willingness to be adaptable and flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and we will continue to adjust as needed over time,” Caldwell said. “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.”

When CVS announced it would require masks, it also said it didn’t expect its employees to become “enforcers.”

Publix said it would begin requiring face masks at all of its locations starting July 21. Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said it would offer masks to shoppers without them. She said how the store responds to those not following the rule will be handled on a “case-by-case basis.”

A recent Tampa Bay Times analysis found that local law enforcement had fielded hundreds of phone calls over people refusing to wear masks while inside grocery stores and other businesses. As of July 9, the City of St. Petersburg was the only municipality in Tampa Bay to actually fine businesses over breaking mask orders.

There were a handful of examples of businesses calling law enforcement to have shoppers banned from a store after mask arguments escalated. One man was banned from a Tarpon Springs Publix at the beginning of July after a heated exchange with a store manager about why they didn’t do more to enforce mask use. The manager was quoted in the police report saying she couldn’t “force” anyone to wear a mask.

Related: Publix says it will require customers at all stores to wear masks

Tampa business lawyer Alissa Kranz said businesses have the legal right to deny anyone entry to their property for not wearing a mask like they do for a shopper not wearing shoes or a shirt. But acting on that puts employees in a difficult position.

“What happens if someone says no?” she said. “You’re a cashier. You’re not anticipating de-escalating a potential conflict with someone who is over the edge.”

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