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Retailers loosen rules on mask-wearing

by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | May 16, 2021 at 5:53 a.m.
Customers wear protective masks as they shop in the retail shopping district of the SoHo neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of New York, Friday, May 14, 2021. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to say whether he will change his state’s mask mandate in light of new federal guidance that eases rules for fully vaccinated people. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Major retailers in growing numbers are lifting mask requirements for those who are fully inoculated, largely moving to an honor system in which they trust that only vaccinated people will bare their faces.

New federal guidance lifted the masking recommendation for fully vaccinated people in most situations -- though not in transit systems, health care facilities or congregate settings -- while affirming that local regulations should still be respected. According to the guidance, people are fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a second dose of vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson's.

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Walmart announced Friday that fully vaccinated customers would no longer need to wear masks and that fully vaccinated employees would no longer need to as of Tuesday. Costco and Publix are also lifting mask requirements for vaccinated people.

Starbucks will make masks optional for vaccinated customers starting Monday, unless local regulations require them.

Many retailers said they would not require proof of vaccination. Costco, for instance, said it would instead "ask for members' responsible and respectful cooperation with this revised policy."

Trader Joe's will no longer make vaccinated customers wear masks, although face coverings are still required for employees, spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel said in a statement.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board on Thursday issued updated mask guidance that follows the new federal guidelines, noting that it would not require casinos to confirm the vaccination status of patrons but would also not prevent them from doing so.

Retailers such as Target and CVS, though, plan to continue mandating facial coverings for shoppers for now.

"CVS Health is currently re-evaluating its position on masks given the CDC's new guidance," Joe Goode, a spokesman, said in a statement. "Until that evaluation is complete, the existing company policies on face coverings and maintaining social distance in stores and clinics remain in effect."

The new guidance, released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came as a surprise to many Americans. For months, federal officials warned that wearing masks and practicing social distancing were necessary to control the spread of the virus. The guidance raised some disquiet because there is no obvious way for retailers, their employees or their patrons to determine who has been vaccinated and who has not.

Some public health experts expressed concerns that unvaccinated people may also choose to shed their masks.

"CDC is betting that by giving wide freedom to vaccinated people it'll encourage the hesitant," Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University's O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, wrote on Twitter on Thursday. "But there's no behavioral evidence for that. What's more likely to happen is that both vaccinated AND unvaccinated people will take off their masks."

Union leaders have also pointed to the health risks that workers could face.

"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, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a statement Thursday.

There are alternatives to an honor system, in the form of documentation of vaccination. However, vaccine cards can be forged, and "vaccine passports" have become a contentious topic, with many Republican governors pushing back on them. Although the passports could help businesses operate more safely, critics argue that they raise privacy and equity concerns. Still, hundreds of airlines, governments and other organizations are experimenting with electronic versions.

On the question of a possible federal vaccine passport, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing Friday that the Biden administration remained focused on the vaccination campaign and was "not currently considering federal mandates." But she left open the possibility that private-sector companies might want to require some kind of vaccination documentation, citing those "running a stadium, if you are a sports team or something like that."

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

The federal government is also adjusting to the new mask guidance.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have to keep wearing masks on the House floor, according to a memo from the Office of the Attending Physician, Dr. Brian Monahan. Many lawmakers objected to being required to keep wearing masks until all 435 of them get their covid-19 shots.

"The present mask requirement and other guidelines remain unchanged until all Members and Floor staff are fully vaccinated," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a memo to her Democratic colleagues. "Returning the Capitol to the welcoming and safe venue that it has been requires us to not only secure it physically but to make it safe from the virus."

Recent surveys suggest that about 1 in 4 House lawmakers are not fully vaccinated.

"So much for following the science," said Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., a urologist. He complained that he'd have to put his mask back on after his House floor speech despite being fully vaccinated.

Lawmakers can remove their masks while on the House floor to make speeches, but they must mask up after they finish. They are, however, free to resume "pre-pandemic activities" elsewhere in the House complex of office buildings and public spaces.

In the Senate, Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Joni Ernst of Iowa were among those who didn't hesitate to remove their masks as soon as they heard the news. They were seen entering the Senate chamber Thursday marveling at being mask-free and calling out, "Freedom!"

The Senate leadership has not commented on the updated mask guidance, which came down as President Joe Biden and a group of Republican senators discussed infrastructure in the Oval Office.

"So we all looked at each other ... [and] we took all of our masks off," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told Fox News on Friday. "It felt very freeing, and we had a great discussion after that. We all felt good about it, and it certainly helps the flow of conversation."

Reporters on Friday caught up with Biden as he made an unannounced appearance on the White House driveway to pose for photos with a departing staff member. Asked if he was enjoying his first workday without a mask, Biden replied "yes" as he reentered the West Wing.

For the first time in about a year, reporters went barefaced as they questioned Psaki at the daily briefing.

After the CDC guidance went out, Psaki said, staff members were immediately notified by email that they could stop wearing masks, including in meetings with Biden. Similar guidance was issued to the White House Correspondents' Association, which dropped its mask requirement for journalists on the premises.

Psaki said it may take a few days to put the new guidelines in place across government and figure out whether it means additional staff members -- many of whom have been working remotely -- will be allowed onto the White House campus.

Some government departments didn't need any time figuring it out.

The Pentagon announced Friday that fully vaccinated Defense Department personnel no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors at its facilities.

Updated guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services said that "fully vaccinated federal employees, fully vaccinated onsite contractors and fully vaccinated visitors to federal buildings are no longer required to wear masks."

But mask-wearing remained in force at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture as it reopened Friday.

Even after saying that fully vaccinated adults can safely shed facial coverings in most settings, the CDC said U.S. schools should maintain mask requirements at least through the end of the academic year.

"Universal and correct use of masks should be required" at K-12 schools providing in-person instruction, the CDC said in a statement Saturday. "Physical distancing should be maximized to the greatest extent possible."

That includes creating distance between children on school buses when possible and ensuring that "teachers and staff use proper hand-washing and respiratory etiquette," according to the agency.

The CDC said it's recommending that schools apply the existing guidance because students won't be fully vaccinated by the end of the 2020-21 school year, and youths under age 12 aren't eligible for shots yet. That will allow schools that reopened to stay open, the agency said.

"Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented prevention strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open," the CDC said.

Information for this article was contributed by Madeleine Ngo of The New York Times; by Darlene Superville, Jonathan Lemire, Lisa Mascaro, Mary Clare Jalonick, Kevin Freking and Brian Slodysko of The Associated Press; and by Tony Czuczka of Bloomberg News (TNS).

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