While the move makes sense from a health standpoint, there's another issue: deciding whose difficult job it will be at Walmart (or your business, if you do something similar) to enforce the rule against anti-mask customers who simply refuse to comply.
Just this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control called for all Americans to wear masks voluntarily in public--although the agency stopped short of asking for a national mandate.
But, with nearly 5,000 stores across the United States, Walmart is well aware that masks have become a political issue for some people, with anti-mask people resorting to violence at times.
Among the recent examples--specifically in Walmart stores:
A Florida man who refused to wear a mask pulled a gun on another shopper at a Walmart, according to local police and reports.
A video of a woman who refused to wear a mask and screamed at customers who were wearing them that they were "cult members" at another Florida Walmart went viral.
An elderly man assaulted a much bigger Walmart employee on video--falling to the ground in the process--after being told he had to wear a mask to enter.
And, while not at Walmart, an incident at a barbeque restaurant in Mission, Kansas, over the weekend, when a man revealed a gun after an employee asked him to wear a mask, goes directly to the question of who will enforce the rule against customers who simply refuse to comply.
The restaurant employee in that incident quit afterward, telling local news:
"I just graduated high school. I'm working in a minimum-wage job just to save up for college, and then I've got to tell this dude to wear a mask.... And he's going to shoot me because of that? It just doesn't make sense to me. The cost-benefit analysis is just not, you know, just doesn't work."
That's the big issue. Across the country, almost 90 percent of Americans say they are willing to wear masks in public places to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to one study.
And Walmart says 65 percent of its stores are in locations where masks are already required under local laws.
So by not requiring masks until now, Walmart was catering only to a very small minority of customers who refuse to do so--albeit a vocal and adamant minority.
But whose job is to enforce the mask requirement at Walmart? And will employees making an average of $17.50 an hour (including both new and veteran hourly employees) think it's worthwhile to do so, given these kinds of well-publicized incidents?
According to Walmart's announcement, the company is creating a new position called "Health Ambassadors," whose job will be "to remind those without a mask of our new requirements," and " will work with customers who show up at a store without a face covering to try and find a solution."
Frankly, standing at the door all day, specifically waiting for people who might be looking for a confrontation or to make a political statement over whether they have to wear masks, might turn out to be the hardest job at Walmart.
To help, Walmart said all stores at Walmart and Sam's Club will have only one entrance--where the Health Ambassadors, identifiable in black shirts, will be stationed.
"We know it may not be possible for everyone to wear a face covering," Walmart's announcement said. "Our associates will be trained on those exceptions to help reduce friction for the shopper and make the process as easy as possible for everyone."
Everything about the way the position is described seems to emphasize de-escalation, which is a probably a good thing. I asked Walmart whether there's anything else planned--including, perhaps additional trained security, given some of the highly publicized incidents--but haven't heard anything back yet.
It's worth noting that in other contexts, Walmart and other big retailers--Home Depot among them--have reportedly fired employees who tried to physically apprehend law-breaking customers, such as shoplifters. A similar thought process might be involved here.
You might have a similar rule at your business--simply because the benefit of stopping an individual theft is outweighed by the thought of all the things that could go wrong in the process--injuries, lawsuits, and who knows what else?
Consider it yet another side effect of our failure to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the United States: a new rule at Walmart and perhaps your business too--and the question of how to try to enforce it.