SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah grocery store chain will continue to require masks be worn to protect customers and employees against COVID-19, even after the April 10 scheduled lifting of the statewide mask mandate.

In an email sent Tuesday to customers titled, “Wearing Is Caring,” and featuring a drawing of a face mask, Harmons top executives, Bob Harmon and Mark Jensen said, “For now, Harmons will maintain its current COVID-19 safety practices, including the wearing of masks.”

Jensen, Harmons CEO and president, told the Deseret News Wednesday nearly all of the reaction to the decision has been positive so far, including from employees who’ll have to turn away customers refusing to comply with what will be store policy once the state government mandate ends.

“It only makes sense for us to continue to see this through to the end. We really believe our customers want us to do that, too,” Jensen said, adding that Harmons anticipates more business as a result of continuing to take precautions against the spread of the virus.

Out of the more than 250,000 customers Harmons serves daily, he said several hundred typically take the time to thank the store for its efforts and only a few complain about wearing a mask. “We don’t think that will change after April 10,” Jensen said.

The email said the company started in 1932 is “very proud of how far we’ve come in our efforts to keep everyone safe and we intend to continue on that pathway,” pointing out that a majority of employees have not yet had an opportunity to be vaccinated against the virus.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill expected to be signed by Gov. Spencer Cox ending the mask mandate on April 10 and relaxing other restrictions put into place to stop the spread of the virus as soon as the state has received 1.63 million vaccine doses, as long as case counts and hospitalization rates stay low.

Currently, vaccinations are available only for Utahns 50 and older as well as those with specified medical conditions, health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staffs, and K-12 teachers and school staffs.

The state’s vaccine eligibility list is expected to expand to all Utahns on April 1. Unlike some other states, Utah has not prioritized grocery store employees, who tend to be younger, as essential workers who need to be vaccinated quickly.

The Harmons executives cited the upcoming changes and said they wanted “to reiterate our approach to keeping our associates and customers safe,” but stopped short of criticizing lawmakers. They said Harmons has “closely followed guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” throughout the pandemic.

“Like you, we are excited to see the light at the end of the tunnel as vaccinations roll out and cases continue to drop, but we aren’t quite at the finish line yet,” they said, adding they “look forward to removing masks and barriers at an appropriate time. We still have a ways to go, but together we can get there.”

Harmons helped an effort that led last year to lawmakers repealing a massive tax reform package that included an increase in the sales tax on food, by allowing their stores to be used to collect signatures for a citizens referendum to put the issue on the ballot.

Other supermarket and large retail chains around the country, including Kroger, the parent companies of Smith’s, Albertsons and Target, have said they will continue to require masks be worn, even as Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and other states are removing mandates, CBS News has reported.

A Kroger spokesperson said in a statement that the company “will continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our front-line grocery associates can receive the COVID-19 vaccine” as well as continue to encourage social distancing, frequent hand washing and using grocery delivery or pick-up services.

“The Kroger Family of Companies’ most urgent priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores, e-commerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain so that our communities have access to fresh food,” the statement said.

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers

Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 699 new COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths.

The number of vaccine doses administered in the state has hit 1,054,727, a daily increase of 27,654 shots.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is now 499 per day, with another 8,666 Utahns taking 19,892 tests since Tuesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 4.1% when all results are included and 8.3% when multiple test results from an individual over 90 days are excluded.

Utah has 180 people hospitalized with COVID-19, bringing the total number of hospitalizations in the state since the pandemic began just over a year ago to 15,198.

Utah’s death toll is now at 2,037 with the five deaths reported Tuesday, including four that occurred before Feb. 17. They are:

  • A San Juan County man, between 45 and 64, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Utah County woman, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Washington County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County woman, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.