The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday announced new national guidelines for wearing face masks in public spaces, stating that most people in the U.S. no longer have to wear face coverings at indoor venues like retail stores and restaurants.
Those living in counties classified as having “low” or “medium” community-level infection rates based on local transmission data are no longer required to wear face masks indoors, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said at a press conference. This applies to all people in the U.S. regardless of vaccination status.
“We’re in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools to protect ourselves and our communities from Covid-19,” including vaccine boosters, broader access to testing, easily accessible high-quality masks, and new treatments and improved ventilation, she said. More than 200 million Americans have received a full vaccine course to date, with nearly 100 million receiving a booster.
“Now, as the virus continues to circulate in our communities, we must focus our metrics beyond just cases in the community and direct our efforts toward protecting people [who] are at high risk for severe illness,” Walensky said.
More than half of all counties nationwide—representing roughly 70 percent of people in the U.S.—are areas with low or medium levels of Covid-19 community transmission, senior CDC official Dr. Greta Massetti added. Just one week ago approximately one-third of counties reported low or medium spread. A county’s Covid-19 level is determined by combining metrics on new hospitalizations for the virus, current hospital beds occupied by infected patients, hospital capacity, and new confirmed cases. “We continue to see indicators improve in many communities,” she said.
The National Retail Federation on Friday “welcome[d] CDC’s new guidance that changes the metrics by which the agency assesses levels of COVID spread,” Edwin Egee, vice president, government relations and workforce development for the Washington, D.C.-based trade group, told Sourcing Journal.
“In so doing, the CDC is effectively changing the Government’s masking recommendations as well. The new metrics, which combine a community’s level of cases, hospitalizations, and hospital capacity, are workable and helpful for retailers nationwide as we continue to strive to keep our employees and customers safe,” Egee added.
Retail Council of New York State (RCNYS) echoed support for the new guidance.
“We have said for months that the only way to achieve a full economic recovery is to get the COVID-19 virus under control, and recent changes to state and federal mask guidelines certainly indicate that we are moving in the right direction,” RCNYS president and CEO Melissa O’Connor told Sourcing Journal.
“Retailers throughout the state will continue to prioritize the health and safety of employees and customers, and we look forward to working with Governor Kathy Hochul to ensure New York is the retail capital of the world for years to come,” she added.
Los Angeles bucks the trend
The news of relaxed masking across most of the country came just hours after Los Angeles implemented its own new mandate: customers and patrons at restaurants, retail and other indoor establishments will now be allowed to go maskless—provided they show their vaccine cards.
Announced at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, the eased restrictions are more stringent than the CDC’s guidance. Under the LA health order, unvaccinated consumers must continue to wear masks indoors, even if they provide evidence of a negative Covid test, unless they are eating or drinking. Only proof of vaccination, reviewed by an employee, will grant them unmasked access to an establishment. Unvaccinated workers must also remain masked, and employers can require them to provide negative test results every few days.
On Thursday, LA County Public Health director Barbara Ferrer said that the revision would bring the region into closer alignment with the rest of California, which in mid-February dropped its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated individuals. The statewide rule, announced by Governor Gavin Newsom, does not require businesses to obtain proof of vaccination.
Ferrer said this week that the LA Board of Supervisors would review Friday’s CDC guidance in the coming days and announce any changes to protocol at its Tuesday meeting.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for retail in California has been all of these different mandates,” Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, told Sourcing Journal. “The state has one rule, Los Angeles County has another, and now we have the CDC coming out with something new, so there’s not a lot of consistency.” The Northern California city of Santa Clara announced that it will require that all individuals remain masked in indoor public spaces through next week.
Retail has struggled with the variety of regional mask mandates—and the requirement that employees obtain proof of vaccination from customers, Michelin said. Unlike in restaurants, where patrons are permitted to freely to eat and drink, shoppers must remain masked throughout their visits to physical retail. “We don’t want to be the mask police, nor do we want to be the vaccine police, asking people for that personal information,” she said, noting that asking a consumer to search for their vaccine card could deter them from shopping in a store. “They’re just not going to do it.”
The LA mandate is simply too complicated to enact, so many of the association’s members in the county are sticking with the previous ruling that everyone, including employees, remain masked at all times, Michelin said. Ferrer has previously stated that she believes the county’s community Covid-19 levels by mid-March will render indoor masking unnecessary.
But in the near-term, the issue is frustrating Los Angeles retailers, Michelin said. “Other states’ governors have said, ‘We’re moving past this, and we’re learning to live with the virus,’” she said. Allowing counties to enact varying public health standards places certain retailers at a disadvantage.
The state’s economic recovery hinges on consumers feeling “as if we’re moving forward,” she added. “It’s less about wearing a mask, and more about the psychological sense of freedom that comes with turning a corner.” Once consumers “stop living in a state of panic and fear,” normal life—and commerce—can resume. “In general, whether it’s shopping, traveling, or going out, people will be motivated to do more when they feel like they don’t have that cloud over them in the form of a mask.”
“I think we’ve just got to be able to get away from these masks being such a political hot potato,” she added. With so many people now fully inoculated against the virus, “there should be an opportunity to get back to a lifestyle that resembles the normalcy we had before Covid.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.