Walmart Is Still Walmart

We’ve managed to get through the week, so far, without a news story about somebody pulling a gun at a WalMart after being asked to wear a mask. The last person to do so was just charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and improper exhibition of a firearm. But the incident took place on July 12, before WalMart announced its mask mandate.

No guns drawn, but there have been some tense incidents, such as this one in Georgia —

CNN reported today that the rules aren’t being enforced all that stringently.

Walmart and other major retailers made headlines last week with a new requirement for customers to wear masks in its US stores. But the new rules only go so far.

Walmart (WMT), Home Depot (HD), Lowe’s (LOW), Walgreens (WBA), CVS (CVS) and others say they still won’t prohibit customers who refuse to wear a mask from shopping in stores. The issue, they say, is they want to avoid confrontations between angry customers and employees.

So if you threaten to shoot somebody, they let you in without the mask?

Retailers and their employees are finding themselves playing the uncomfortable role of mask police. The increase in coronavirus cases is prompting concern over how to protect both customers and workers in crowded stores from infecting each other.

Especially in places where state and local government hasn’t mandated mask wearing, there’s only so much a retailer can do. If enforcement is left up to store clerks who, understandably, don’t want to be beaten or shot over a mask, enforcement is not going to be all that consistent.

A security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan was shot and killed in May after he told a customer to wear a mask.

Yeah, it’s happened. But see also this op ed by Bill Saporito at the New York Times. Apparently this concern for employee and customer health is part of WalMart’s move into health care, of which I was unaware:

Walmart, like other large corporations, is wading deeper into health care and health care policy. With more than a million employees, it probably buys more health care than many cities. For serious procedures such as heart surgery, for instance, the company has made deals with “Centers of Excellence” such as Cleveland Clinic where employees can get better outcomes at a lower cost over many local practitioners. Other companies have underwritten medical tourism to Mexico or Europe (pre-pandemic) for the same reason.

The company has also opened Walmart Health centers, which offer customers discount doctoring and dentistry, including $30 checkups and mental health counseling at $1 per minute. True to its operating philosophy, Walmart said it has cut the cost of basic health care delivery by some 40 percent compared with conventional practices.

Walmart is also moving directly into selling health insurance to the public. And why not? It sees a huge market opportunity in the fat profit margins and diffident service of the current players. And because we’ll all be dead before the Republican Party delivers the affordable health care insurance it has promised will replace Obamacare.

While such efforts by Walmart and other big payers help to restrain health care costs, the larger problem is that we’ve been abdicating health care policy to profit-seeking corporations.

And as long as we abdicate health care, not to mention pandemic policy, to profit-seeking corporations, we’re still screwed.

Rather than use policy to help corporations get a better handle on Covid-19 safety, the Trump administration is instead focused on absolving them of liability if they don’t act to keep employees and customers safe. Perversely, when the airline industry begged the Federal Aviation Administration to impose a mandatory mask rule for passengers, it got shot down. The F.A.A.’s intransigence is now threatening thousands of airline jobs, if not the carriers themselves, because consumers don’t have enough confidence that flying is safe.

I have less sympathy for the airlines, because over the years they’ve managed to make flying a horrible experience as they thought up more ways to squeeze profits out of the customers. Any excuse not to fly is a good excuse, I say. I’d like to see air travel nationalized, frankly. If the for-profit airlines can’t function without huge government subsidies, miserable flights, and terrible service generally, then nationalize ’em. We can look into that after we fix healthcare.

It is this vacuum of responsibility that is compelling the businesses that are expert at selling coffee, underwear and groceries to manage the pandemic across their swath of the economy. That they are doing a better job than the Trump administration is beyond pathetic.

Well, yeah.