grocery workers

CHECK-UP IN AISLE 13: These members of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Local 338 are keeping their masks on for safety reasons, with a union spokeswoman saying, 'We strongly encourage everyone to mask up at places like the grocery store and pharmacy.'

The state's largest registered nurses' union and a leading occupational-health nonprofit are blasting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's decision to lift the mask mandate and the social-distancing guidance for members of the public who have been vaccinated at a time when less than half of American adults have gotten the shots.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a May 13 White House briefing, "Today, I'm going to tell you some of the things you can do if you are fully vaccinated."

Cuomo, Murphy Diverge

Governor Cuomo and his New Jersey counterpart, Phil Murphy, who until then had stressed the importance of states in the region adhering to the same rules, diverged in their reaction to the lifting of the mandates, with Mr. Cuomo following the CDC in relaxing the guidelines but Governor Murphy keeping the indoor-masking mandate in place.

And in a May 17 tweet, the New York State Nurses Association, which represents 40,000 Registered Nurses, warned "the rushed CDC mask guidance is a rollback on patients' & workers' protections across the country. The path to stop the virus is more than the vaccine alone. This guidance will push communities to remove their masks sooner than recommended—risking lives."

A key concern is that in the neighborhoods of color hardest hit by the coronavirus, where a large portion of the essential workforce resides, the rate of vaccination is well below the 50-percent threshold found in whiter, more-affluent areas.

Charlene Obernauer, the executive director of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, said her  group had heard from unions representing grocery-store workers that were pressing their employers to stick with the mask mandate.

'Disparity' Justifies Caution

"We would support the unions that are calling for the mask mandate to stay in place," Ms. Obernauer said during a phone interview. "There is still a disparity in terms of the rates of vaccination between white communities and communities of color."

"We are calling on all those businesses who employ Local 338 members to continue to encourage mask-wearing in their stores and following safe practices in their establishments," texted Nikki Kateman, the political and communications director of Local 338 Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "Out of respect to the health, safety and sacrifices of our members, we strongly encourage everyone to mask up at places like the grocery store and pharmacy.

Local 338's national union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, also blasted the CDC's new guidance, saying it would force retail workers to play "vaccination police" to sort out which customers needed to wear masks.

The union stated, "Since March 1, UFCW reports a nearly 35-percent increase in grocery-worker deaths and a nearly 30 percent increase in grocery workers infected or exposed following supermarket outbreaks at Whole Foods, Costco, Trader Joe's and other chains across the country."

Says 317 Have Died

The union estimated at least 185 grocery workers and 132 meatpacking workers have died from the virus, with tens of thousands of other union members infected or exposed, incurring potential long-term health risks.

During a May 19 press briefing by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder echoed NYSNA's concerns about the rollback of the indoor-mask mandate. She told reporters the CDC should have coordinated the shift in guidance with "stakeholders" including labor unions and the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

She was sharply critical of the CDC's decision to rely on the "honor system" when it came to waiving the mask and social-distancing requirements for those that are vaccinated.

"You need to take into consideration other questions: for example, how can you be sure somebody has truly been vaccinated?" she said. "There's a reason somebody goes into a bar and we card them when they want to buy alcohol."

Resisters Are Threat

Dr. Gounder also noted that "some of those who have been most resistant to wearing a mask are also those who unfortunately may be most resistant to getting vaccinated right now. And so that does really pose a risk to other people."

The Public Advocate's health adviser told reporters that nationally, slightly more than one in four black Americans were vaccinated, with the rate for Hispanics just a few percentage points higher. She maintained that the CDC should have waited for the vaccination rate in communities of color to hit the 50-percent mark before rolling back the  requirements.

"It is the duty of public health not to just look out for the individual, but the population—and specifically the most vulnerable among us," she said.

But Mayor de Blasio disagreed with her assessment, saying May 19 he believed New Yorkers could be trusted to use the honor system. He also noted, however, that city employees dealing with the public would "continue to use masks," explaining, "If you're a public servant, you're coming in contact with people all day long. Of course, some are going to be unvaccinated. It's better to wear the mask out of an abundance of caution."  

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