Opinion | Meet the New C.D.C. Director: Walmart

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened branch offices in Bentonville, Ark., and Seattle this month. Not officially. But with the president trying to distance himself from responsibility for the coronavirus crisis, and Southern governors amplifying the damage with their flawed reopening strategies, the nation’s retailers have become the first line of defense against the pandemic.

From the headquarters of Walmart (which includes Sam’s Club) and Starbucks came the directive that all customers must wear masks. The conservative Southeasterner and liberal Northwesterner were followed by other national retailers, including Kohl’s, CVS, Walgreens, Publix and Target. Wearing a mask is a “simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities,” said Dacona Smith and Lance de la Rosa, the chief operating officers of Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club, on the corporate website.

So simple that you’d think even a president or a governor could do it, yet Mr. Trump could only muster a halfhearted tweet on Monday conceding that “many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask.” Many people not named Donald Trump. People with names like Robert Redfield, director of the C.D.C., who noted that mask wearing isn’t so much patriotic as prudent. “The data is clearly there, that masking works,” he said. Without the visible backing of the president, though, Dr. Redfield lacks the authority of, say, a guy who sells caramel brûlée lattes. Even after finally, grudgingly, coming around to the idea that masks work, Mr. Trump was spotted in public without one.

For Starbucks, that caffeinated brand of corporate progressivism shaped by Howard Schultz, the facemask rule seems in keeping with the corporate culture. Mr. Schultz, quite unlike Seattle’s other big retail boss, Jeff Bezos, has a social conscience. Starbucks offered health care to full-time and even part-time employees long before other big chains did. The company has also learned from its experience with the pandemic in China.

Walmart’s conscience is evolving. Last year its C.E.O., Doug McMillon, took a stand against the N.R.A. and gun violence in asking customers in open-carry states to stop openly bringing firearms into his stores, which have been the sites of several mass shootings. The Walmart founder Sam Walton was an avid bird hunter, and hunting and fishing are important departments in the stores. So you can still buy a shotgun at Walmart, but you have to wear a mask to do it.

The mask rule may create some tension in the deep-red burgs in Arkansas or Texas where Walmart can be the biggest game in town. But mandatory masks could turn out to be a competitive issue, too, as consumers seek safety. Winn-Dixie, a Southern supermarket chain, had resisted masks, but changed its mind this week. Putting customers at risk for political reasons is one thing; putting your business at risk is another.

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. This isn’t a great idea, even if it’s well meaning in the beginning. There’s a long tradition of corporate medicine, from 19th- and 20th-century social welfare model companies such as H.J. Heinz and Hershey to Henry Ford’s later attempt to control every aspect of his workers’ lives. In company towns, coal and steel companies supported clinics to repair the damage being done to employees in the mills and mines. It was only in the years after World War II that corporations formally assumed health care as part of collective bargaining agreements, setting the pattern for the country.

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.

If there are no customers, indemnity from liability is not of much use. 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.

Bill Saporito is a contributor to the editorial board.

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