Some Americans reacted warily on Friday to new federal guidance allowing people to go without masks in most places, suggesting that many do not feel safe enough yet from COVID-19 to lose their face coverings.
Caution and confusion followed advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can mostly avoid wearing them indoors.
It was updated guidance the agency said would allow life to begin to return to normal amid hopes it will prod more people to get vaccinated during a pandemic that has killed more than half a million Americans.
“I’m nervous about it,” said Allison Douma, 24, out walking her dogs in Washington, D.C., and wearing a mask. She was fully vaccinated last month. “I just don’t feel safe because vaccination rates are going down, and I’m worried about the mutations.”
In New York City, Maggie Cantrick, 39, who works at an arts center, said she was not ready to lose her mask in places such as a grocery story. “I am fully vaccinated – I can just take off my mask? This is crazy!” she said.
U.S. supermarket chain Kroger Co said it will continue to require customers to wear masks. “We are reviewing current safety practices, the CDC’s latest guidance, and soliciting feedback from associates to guide the next phase of our policy,” the company said in a statement.
Another food chain, Trader Joe’s, said it would immediately drop its mask mandate for customers who are fully vaccinated.
In many parts of the United States, people have not been wearing masks for months. Bars in Miami, for example, have been serving maskless customers for weeks. A January survey by the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research found that even at a peak time for COVID-19 infections, half of Americans were not wearing masks when mixing with the public.
Andy Shallal, 66, the CEO and founder of Busboys and Poets, a book store, cultural hub and restaurant in downtown Washington said he welcomed the sign that the United States is “going back to some kind of normal.” But he said the CDC guidance was confusing because, “There’s no way for us to know who’s vaccinated and who’s not.”
The administration of Democratic President Joe Biden has faced criticism for mixed mask messaging, with the president keeping his mask on in most instances, indoors and outdoors. On Thursday he appeared in the Rose Garden without his mask.
On Friday, Biden made a surprise appearance outside the White House for a tour with visitors not far from where the media is stationed near the West Wing. “Yes,” he told reporters when asked if he was enjoying working his first day without a mask.
With the new federal guidance, it will be up to people to decide how to protect themselves now that vaccines are readily available, top U.S. health officials said on Friday.
“What we’re really doing is empowering individuals to make decisions about their own health,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. “If you are vaccinated and you’re making the decision to take off your mask … you are safe. If you are unvaccinated, then you’ve made the decision to take that risk.”
She said officials were still encouraging unvaccinated people to get their shots as soon as possible to protect themselves and others against the novel coronavirus that is still circulating even as cases decline.
In an MSNBC interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, echoed the idea that looser recommendations should encourage people to get their COVID-19 shots so they can shed their masks.
There are caveats. The looser mask guidance does not apply to certain situations such as public transportation and prisons. There is also no approved U.S. COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 11 and younger.
Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and now Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb told CNBC he backed the new policy given that half the U.S. states had a low case rate of 10 per 100,000 people per day and that vaccination rates were high in many places.
Many states had already relaxed mask mandates and other restrictions in recent weeks as case loads dropped.
Ahmad Erfani, 70, who runs Le Caprice bakery in Washington, is not convinced. He said he would still ask indoor customers to keep their masks on. “You don’t know who is or isn’t vaccinated,” he said.