This story was updated on May 20, 2021.
May 14, 2021 -- New CDC guidance says fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors, but many businesses and some state and local governments have not relaxed their own mask rules yet.
"The whole country is not a homogeneous space," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said Thursday in explaining that the CDC doesn’t trump state and local restrictions. "So, we have some jurisdictions that have higher levels of cases. We have some jurisdictions that have lower levels of vaccine administration."
Big companies such as Home Depot, Walgreens, and Macy’s are keeping policies requiring employees and shoppers to mask up -- at least for the time being, according to Insider. Others, however, have taken steps to ease or drop mask requirements, including Target, Kroger, Publix, Costco. Starbucks, Walmart and Trader Joe's.
"We have received feedback from and heard the valued opinions of thousands of associates regarding the CDC’s announcement. Based on the CDC’s science-based guidance and the input of our associates, we are updating our mask policy in a way that balances our values of safety and respect," a statement from Kroger says. Fully vaccinated employees and customers do not have to wear masks, the company said.
Two unions representing grocery and retail workers said the CDC guidance needs clarification and puts their members at risk.
“While we all share the desire to return to a mask-free normal, today’s CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks,” Marc Perrone of the United Food and Commercial Workers said in a statement.
Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said the group seeks consistency from the CDC.
“Today’s CDC announcement on masks creates ambiguity for retailers because it fails to fully align with state and local orders,” she said. “These conflicting positions put retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations. We urge state and local governments to coordinate with the CDC as additional guidance is issued on the road to normalcy.”
Walt Disney World May Relax Mask Policy
In response to the CDC guidance, Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek says the mask policy for the theme parks may be dropped or relaxed this summer, according to the company website. He didn’t provide an exact time frame.
The current policy requires guests over 2 to wear masks except when eating, drinking, swimming, or taking an outdoor photo as long as appropriate physical distancing is maintained.
Disney is already easing other restrictions, with temperature checks to be eliminated May 16 and physical distancing measures being reduced.
Cuomo Says New York Reviewing Guidance
Some governors want to study the guidance before deciding whether to go along with it.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is one of them, saying the state has “always relied on the facts and the science to guide us throughout the worst of this pandemic and in our successful reopening.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the new CDC guidance but also said it needs to be reviewed, according to The New York Times.
A spokesperson for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also said the state’s indoor mask rule will remain in effect for now, the Times reported. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has already said the state mask mandate will stay in place until June 15 if case numbers keep dropping.
Still, the Times reported that at least seven states led by Democrats began to lift mask mandates on Thursday after the CDC announcement: Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.
“This is a heck of a benefit for people who have been annoyed by this mask,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who began a Thursday meeting by removing his mask. “This is a really good reason to get vaccinated. That shot is a ticket to freedom from masks.”
Several states led by Republican governors, such as Texas, have already loosened mask rules.
The new CDC guidance says people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are no longer required to wear masks or physically distance, regardless of the location or size of the gathering.
Walensky said there are some clear exceptions. Those who have symptoms should still wear masks, the CDC says, and everybody should wear masks while traveling on airplanes, buses, or trains and while inside hospitals, homeless shelters, and prisons.
“The science demonstrates that if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re protected,” Walensky said, saying travel guidance would be updated soon.
CDC Shift Surprised Many in Public Health
The CDC’s announcement surprised many health experts, who expected a federal mask policy to last at least several more months, according to The New York Times.
The paper surveyed 723 epidemiologists between April 28 and May 10 -- before the CDC announced the new mask guidance.
When asked to predict how long Americans would need to wear masks when indoors with people whose vaccination status they don’t know, only 5% of the respondents said Americans would no longer need to wear a mask indoors by the summer.
The survey said 26% thought masks should be worn in those situations from now on, 26% said for more than a year, 29% said one year, and 15% said half a year.
When asked if a mask should be worn outdoors in a large outdoor crowd, 88% of the epidemiologists said yes, even for fully vaccinated people.
Many of the respondents noted that masks protect unvaccinated people and people with underlying health conditions.
“Until community transmission is lower, it protects the whole community and the other people in the room to wear masks,” Julia Raifman, ScD, an assistant professor of public health at Boston University, told the Times.