Wed, December 08, 2021


Americans grapple with new guidance

LOUISVILLE - Soon after the CDC announced its updated mask guidance, Louisville coffee shop owner Billy Sechman took to Instagram.

"Notice," he posted, "masks are still required!"

Even though most of his staff is fully vaccinated, Sechman said he wasn't comfortable with customers coming in barefaced.

"The mask mandate dropped so fast it caught us off guard," said Sechman, 58, who owns Bean. "We have to get the team together and talk about everything."

His experience highlights the chaos and confusion unleashed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Thursday pronouncement that fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most cases.

While the relaxed guidelines had some ripping the cloth from their faces and vowing to party like it's 2019, many around the country - particularly front-line workers and parents of small children - worried for their health, and wondered whether and how to implement the new guidance, at odds with the local regulations in some states.

Aubrielle Whitis, 23, a vaccinated barista at Bean, said she was nervous about the new guidelines.

"I'm worried that people who aren't vaccinated will take it as a pass not to wear their mask. I feel pretty safe being vaccinated, but it's more of a risk with the possibility of variants," Whitis said.

For others, the announcement brought relief.

At Al's Cafe in suburban Pittsburgh, a thrilled Rod Ambrogi told his staff Friday that they can take off their masks if they are vaccinated. The cafe was cited by the county health department after it continued to serve meals indoors last December, defying the governor's shutdown order.

Ambrogi, who wore a mask only in public areas of the restaurant before Thursday, does not plan to get vaccinated. He said he thinks he had a mild case of covid-19 a few months ago, though he never got tested, and believes he is immune.

"I never did believe in masks," he said.

Ambrogi, 74, said he could understand the restrictions for the first three months of the pandemic, but "I've been done with this coronavirus for the past few months. It's behind us right now."

Ambrogi said the CDC guidelines conflict with state regulations, creating confusion. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is lifting all capacity restrictions on businesses on Memorial Day, but said he will keep a state mask mandate until at least 70% of adult Pennsylvanians are vaccinated.

"As it is right now, should we wear masks, or shouldn't we?" Ambrogi said. "The president says we don't; Rite Aid or Giant Eagle says we do."

In Minnesota, local officials grappled with that question.

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, announced that all coronavirus restrictions on business and social gatherings would end on May 28, but extended the statewide indoor mask mandate until July 1, or until 70% of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated.

But at a Thursday news conference following the CDC announcement, Walz said he would end the mask mandate Friday, leaving cities and businesses to decide whether to impose their own rules.

At a Friday city council meeting, Minneapolis officials debated whether getting rid of the mask mandate would exacerbate racial disparities. "If the information that you're giving us is that in more affluent and Whiter parts of town, lifting the mask mandate would be a pleasurable fun thing that would probably be safe; and if in other parts of town where people haven't had access to the vaccine, it means people will get sick and die, I think it's very clear what the choice is," said council member Steve Fletcher, who represents an area of downtown Minneapolis.

Ultimately, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced they would retain their mask mandates for now, saying they needed to consult with city health experts before lifting restrictions.

Jorge Guzman, a James Beard award-nominated chef who owns and operates Petite León in South Minneapolis, said he wasn't surprised by the mixed messages from government and health officials.

"It's been like that from the beginning," he said. "One minute it's this, the next minute it's that. . . . You get tons of conflicting messages, and then all of the sudden one day without notice, no more mask."

The CDC ruling is expected to accelerate an already busy summer of travel for vacations, barbecues and family reunions. Late Thursday evening, Disney chief executive Bob Chapek said he expected attendance at Disney World in Florida to spike and that the company is planning to drop its mask requirements for the theme park.

Disneyland in California will still be under that state's mask order.

In Las Vegas, casino operators are bracing for a surge of visitors. But even as resorts such as Wynn Resorts and the Venetian posted signs at entrances Friday stating that vaccinated individuals could go maskless, a majority of visitors kept the cloth coverings in place.

Ricky Rodriguez, a bartender at ReBAR in the city's downtown Arts District, is fully vaccinated but said he is going to play it cautiously.

"In the beginning, I wasn't a believer. I thought it was just the flu," the 33-year-old said. It wasn't until a close friend contracted the virus and died of a blood clot at age 30 that he took it seriously.

"I'm happy everything is opening back up and that there is going to be some sort of normalcy, but I'm going to take precautions and sanitize my hands, wear my mask and keep my distance," he said between pouring customers drinks. "I'm still going to be careful."

The CDC's surprise announcement also roiled parents of young children, who can't yet get vaccinated.

"It's hard to know that you can trust if people are vaccinated or if they just don't want to wear a mask. It's like a free pass to stop being considerate of the vulnerable populations who can't get vaccinated," said Kelsey Gorder, 30, a mother in San Francisco.

Gorder and her husband are both fully vaccinated. But with three unvaccinated kids at home under 6, one who is medically high risk, they're not taking off masks anytime soon. She wants to set a good example for her kids, but is also uncomfortable with how fast things are moving.

"I get it, they're getting more data and more information. But having spent the last 14 months quarantined and masked, to all the sudden say, 'Oh it's cool, you don't really have to anymore,' seems really premature," Gorder said.

Rebecca Kee, another San Francisco resident, has seen how divisive the new guidance can be.

After the CDC said fully vaccinated people don't need masks outside last week, she decided to walk barefaced in her neighborhood.

Then a man with two children, all masked, darted into the street to avoid her. When she told him there was new guidance, the man told Kee she was lying and he hoped her family would get sick and die.

"It shook me to my core and made me really feel horrible," said Kee, 38. "I think in a time of deep instability and real fear, the mask became a symbol of caring for your neighbor that we all clung to."

Kee said she will continue to go mask-free where allowed, but will give people a wide berth.

Jacob Schwandt, a 26-year-old government and civics teacher at Oldham County High School near Louisville, said he got vaccinated to spend time with his asthmatic dad. He said people aren't even trying to abide by safety recommendations anymore - and the CDC's Thursday ruling will only make it harder.

"The amount of time I spend each day prompting students to pull their mask up or put their mask back on is staggering," he said.

In theory, he's excited about an end to masking. But he's worried about his workplace, which is full of unvaccinated young people who don't typically follow social distancing rules and are vocal about their families' opposition to vaccination.

And Schwandt doesn't think the CDC's new guidelines will lead to more vaccinations.

"Honestly, I believe that anyone who wanted to be vaccinated already has been, or has plans to become vaccinated," Schwandt said. "The announcement felt more like an appeasement to those who are jaded with the safety protocols."

Sandra Dear, the owner of the Little Boho Bookshop on Broadway in Bayonne, N.J., wore her black mask shortly after opening her store on Friday morning.

She carefully tracks coronavirus data in Bayonne, as well as neighboring cities in Hudson County and across the bridge in Staten Island. While information has changed almost daily, Dear has remained resolute in mandating that customers wear masks indoors until local vaccination rates reach 80%.

"The CDC announcement was a breath of fresh air," she said. "However, then you hear the Yankees have eight people that are positive after the shot. We will step cautiously."

Tory Aunspach, 42, is readying to open Cafe Alyce, his new venture in Jersey City. He just got tables for outdoor seating and is fully vaccinated. Workers wore masks as they prepared the space to welcome customers in coming weeks.

Aunspach welcomed the latest lifting of restrictions. He has kept delivery going at his other restaurant, Hooked JC, having closed the kitchen there for only five days early in the pandemic, and limited orders to online to keep his staff safe.

He sees opportunity now with his new cafe that looks out at the Manhattan skyline, and is planning for dining service when he opens sometime next month.

"People are tired of this," he said. "It's going to be nuts."

Published : May 16, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Austyn Gaffney, Heather Kelly, Annie Gowen