New CDC policy on masks creates confusion among businesses, local governments


Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s said they will allow fully vaccinated customers to go maskless in their stores, while companies such as Home Depot and Target say customers should still cover up for now.

Starbucks said masks will be optional for customers as of Monday. CVS and Walgreens, top pharmacies that offer the COVID-19 vaccines, haven’t changed their mask policies, but they’re taking a second look and said they will be guided by the safety of their workers and customers.

“As a destination for COVID vaccine and testing we have decided to keep our current face-covering policy in place for the time being,” Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said.

Companies, governors and retail workers are trying to navigate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s conclusion that fully vaccinated persons no longer need to wear masks in most indoor settings.

With a fact sheet and brief remarks, the agency last week upended a year of face-shrouding that served as a political lightning rod and sign of caution amid the deadly pandemic. Some things changed overnight, with President Biden roaming the West Wing and White House correspondents sitting in briefing-room chairs without masks.

“In just one day, we now anticipate an oversupply of masks and an under-supply of lipstick,” Cecilia Rouse, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters from the podium on Friday.

In the states, Connecticut immediately loosened its rules to reflect CDC guidance, while New York and New Jersey said they’re not there yet. And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would pardon “any Floridian” punished for flouting local mask mandates as he burnishes a reputation for opposing COVID-19 restrictions on daily life.

The sudden shift in CDC guidance sparked questions about timing — between gas shortages and Middle East violence, President Biden had a tough week — and how it will be implemented in the real world because it is difficult to tell who is vaccinated and who is not.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan lifted his state’s mask mandate altogether, saying it would be a “logistical nightmare” to sort through each person’s vaccination status and apply different rules.

“We finally do clearly see the light at the end of that tunnel. Our long, hard-fought battle against the worst global pandemic in more than a century is finally nearing an end,” the Republican governor said.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky acknowledged Sunday that the mask framework will be, more or less, an honor system.

“We are asking people to be honest with themselves. If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe,” Dr. Walensky told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And what we’re asking businesses to do — probably the most important thing that businesses could do right now — is to work to ensure that it’s easy for their own employees to get vaccinated, and to give them the time that they need so that they can make those appointments and get themselves vaccinated.”

She said it will be up to local businesses and other entities to navigate whether they mandate vaccines or proof of vaccination.

“We’re not counting on vaccine mandates at all. It may very well be that local — local businesses, local jurisdictions — will work towards vaccine mandates,” Dr. Walensky said. “That is going to be locally driven and not federally driven.”

Administration officials cited declining coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and new data on the vaccines’ ability to thwart variants in justifying the change that has led to confusion in the private and public sectors. Also, adolescents 12 and older are now eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The CDC’s job “isn’t to be popular. They try to follow the science,” Biden adviser Andy Slavitt told Fox News on Friday.

The CDC got a little less popular with the United Food and Commercial Workers, a labor union for grocery and retail workers. It fears the guidance will put its members at risk because unvaccinated persons will use the revision as an excuse to ditch their masks.

The union, which represents 1.3 million frontline workers, said it will be impossible to tell who got the shots and who didn’t.

“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said.

The statement offered a dose of dissent after many Americans hailed the revised guidance as a pivot to normalcy. The CDC said fully vaccinated persons should still wear masks in hospitals, prisons and on public transportation, however.

Some experts said the CDC’s update should incentivize people to get the shots so they can get back to normal, while others said it will let younger people get what they want — no more masks — without bothering to get vaccinated.

Mr. Biden asked unvaccinated persons to keep wearing their masks, though said no one will “go out and arrest people” who cheat.

The UFCW said it wants some clarity on how the guidance should be implemented in stores.

“Vaccinations are helping us take control of this pandemic, but we must not let our guard down,” Mr. Perrone said. “As one of America’s largest unions for essential workers, UFCW is calling on the CDC and our nation’s leaders to clarify how this new policy will be implemented, how essential workers will be protected, and how these workers will protect the communities they serve.”

Some retailers are seeing the new guidance as a boon for vaccination efforts, however. Walmart said it will allow its employees to work maskless if they go out and get the shots.

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