New guidelines on masks stir debate in US, sow confusion

Leading unions are opposed to updated guidelines that allow vaccinated Americans to shed their masks in public.

More than a dozen states quickly embraced the new rules, announced on Thursday [Carlo Allegri/Reuters]

New federal guidelines stating that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks – even indoors – continued to evoke debate on Monday as leading workers’ unions and retailers hesitated amid doubt that the new approach is safe or workable.

More than a dozen states quickly embraced the new rules, announced on Thursday, which still call for masks to be worn in crowded indoor settings including buses, airplanes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.

But some Americans said the move may be premature.

US President Joe Biden heralded the new mask guidelines as a ‘great day for America’ [Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

Vanessa Li, an epidemiologist who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is not yet past the two-week point of her second vaccine dose. She says she will continue to wear a mask, even after she is considered fully vaccinated.

“I guess I am hesitant to take it off because it’s been such a habit and internationally there’s been different strains and different risk levels,” Li, 25, told The Associated Press news agency. “Global travel is picking up and it’s still prevalent, so I’m not really sure how at risk everyone is at the moment.”

With more than a third of the US population fully vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday eased its mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, in a step that was heralded as a milestone for recuperating normalcy in the country.

But commentators on Monday criticised the move.

Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said the CDC’s announcement was made abruptly and with little guidance on how to implement it.

“The CDC made a critical error here in surprising basically everyone with a very significant change last week,” Gupta said.

Crowds walking without masks on the pier in Santa Monica, California [Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo]

The move was also blasted by the nation’s largest union of registered nurses, who said the guidance puts the lives of patients and front-line workers at risk.

“This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country,” the executive director of the National Nurses Union, Bonnie Castillo, said in a statement on Friday.

“Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century,” Castillo said.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden said that fully vaccinated Americans are free to continue to wear a mask if they choose, and businesses may continue to require it.

“Some people may want to continue wearing masks, even if they are fully vaccinated, that’s a decision they can make,” Biden said during a speech on Monday.

“Some businesses may continue to require wearing a mask,” he said, “let’s all be kind and respectful to one another as we come out of this pandemic.”

The issue of wearing masks has been a point of heated political debate over the last year, and former President Donald Trump mocked Biden for wearing a mask in public.

“I’ve always been against masks, and I think all their rules have been hypocritical, and they’ve been confusing,” Denise Duckworth from Kansas City, Missouri, told the AP while strolling the French Quarter in New Orleans, unmasked.

A sign recommending visitors to wear masks at the Denver Zoo in Denver [David Zalubowski/AP Photo]

The new guidelines are also likely to create conflicting rules.

CVS, Home Depot, Macy’s and supermarket Kroger said they are still requiring masks in stores for now and would review their policies.

Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s on Friday said they will not require vaccinated shoppers to wear a mask in their US stores unless state or local laws say otherwise.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, said the new guidelines could expose workers to the coronavirus and it would force them into the unwanted role of “vaccination police”.

“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,” the group said in a statement.

“Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”

Still, many Americans say they are ready to remove the most visible sign of the pandemic, and believe that being fully vaccinated greatly reduces their risks of contracting the virus or spreading it to others.

“If you’ve been vaccinated and you’ve put the effort into it to avoid spreading the disease, it’s about time to begin this rebuilding process,” Andrew Kodet, 20, a college student, told the AP during an outdoor event in Fargo, North Dakota.

“There is nothing political about it with me.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies