CEO says Albertsons is preparing for virus restrictions. Here’s what Walmart is doing

Albertsons Companies Inc. says it’s getting ready in case coronavirus restrictions are reinstated as infections fueled by the delta variant have soared in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Walmart told employees Friday that it will now start requiring them to wear masks if they work in counties where virus transmission is “substantial” or “high,” as it is in most of Idaho, including Ada and Canyon counties. Customers will be “strongly” encouraged to mask up but won’t be required to.

So far, Albertsons has held off from requiring customers and employees to begin wearing masks again. Signs outside its stores encourage — but don’t require — masks for customers who have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“We’re starting to talk about it. We will be prepared,” Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, noting that the seven-day average of daily new cases is similar to that of a year ago. “We should not ignore that.”

Walmart sent a memo to all employees Friday that said in part: “We will continue to follow the latest CDC guidance, which includes fully vaccinated people wearing masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission, effective immediately.” The memo included a link to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control map with color-coded transmission-rate levels for each U.S. county.

In an email to the Statesman, Walmart said it will also double the payment to employees who get vaccinated to $150.

“We know vaccinations are our solution to drive change,” Walmart said in a letter to employees.

Masks were mandatory in all Boise stores beginning July 2020, following an order from Mayor Lauren McLean. The requirement was later expanded to all other Albertsons stores in Idaho. It was lifted in May, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was no longer necessary for vaccinated people to wear masks indoors.

Last week, the CDC recommended that people who are fully vaccinated wear a mask when they’re indoors in public in an area with “substantial or high transmission” of the coronavirus.

It’s unclear whether Albertsons, the Boise-based owner of several grocery store chains across the country, will soon institute new requirements as infection rates have risen in recent weeks.

“We don’t have anything further to comment at this time,” Albertsons spokesperson Denise Berger said Friday by email.

Fred Meyer has continued to keep mask-wearing optional.

More than 612,000 Americans have died and 34.8 million have been infected with the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The Washington Post on Thursday, citing an internal federal health document, said the delta variant appears to cause more serious illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox.

On Friday, the newspaper reported that three-quarters of the people infected recently by the delta variant in Massachusetts were fully vaccinated.

Sankaran’s remarks came as Albertsons reported same-store sales dropped by 10% in the first quarter, compared with a year ago. In the first quarter of 2020, same-store sales were up 26.5%.

Still, sales were up 16.5%, when compared with the first quarter of 2019, before the pandemic.

Adjusted net earnings were $517.5 million, down from $801.2 million in first-quarter 2020. Earnings totaled 89 cents per share, better than the 67 cents predicted by analysts.

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