Winn-Dixie, a popular supermarket chain in the South, is facing backlash after it announced that, unlike several of its competitors, it will not require customers to wear face masks inside its stores.
In a statement obtained by TODAY on Sunday, a spokesperson for Southeastern Grocers, Winn-Dixie's parent company, said: "Currently, we are adhering to all local safety mandates within each of our stores and strongly encouraging those who are medically able to wear a face covering to do so."
The statement also addressed the reasoning behind the decision.
"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," it read.
The news follows numerous reports of altercations over face-mask regulations between customers and employees at stores across the country. Still, Winn-Dixie's stance differs from other grocery giants.
Both Publix and Southeastern Grocers are headquartered in Florida, one of the hardest-hit states in the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Florida hospitals are currently facing a shortage of beds in intensive care units, and total cases in the state recently surpassed 338,000. Florida is one of three states, including Texas and California, that account for one-fifth of the world's new coronavirus cases.
Many social media users have publicly questioned Winn-Dixie's parent company's decision.
"Since I've returned to chemotherapy, Winn Dixie's not the store for me," tweeted one person.
"Good for you #WinnDixie for providing a place where the anti maskers can shop," wrote another. "Now they can stop having temper tantrums in stores that do require a mask."
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced once again that masks are a "critical tool in the fight against COVID-19."
CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said in the statement: “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting ... All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities."
EDITOR'S NOTE: (July 20, 2020, 6:30 p.m. EST): In a statement to TODAY on Monday afternoon, Southeastern Grocers announced that it will require customers to wear masks in its stores starting July 27, 2020. It cited recent media coverage and "dialogue around this issue" as two driving factors.
"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 read.
Southeastern Grocers is the parent company of Winn-Dixie, Harveys, BI-LO and Fresco y Más.