What does the CDC’s new guidance on indoor masks mean for you, your state, and your workplace?

cdc indoor masks
Photo via Gauthier Delecroix/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In response to rising COVID-19 case numbers throughout the nation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that all people, regardless of vaccination status, should now wear masks in indoor settings. This is a reversal from more permissive guidance issued earlier this summer.

“This pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a media call on July 27, according to CNBC. “Today, we have new science related to the delta variant that requires us to update the guidance regarding what you can do when you are fully vaccinated.”

Walensky went on to say, “In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public, indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the delta variant, and protect others. This includes schools.” 

She went on to clarify the new CDC guidelines, calling for everyone in grade schools to wear masks while indoors, “including teachers, staff, students, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.”

This is a change from the CDC’s May guidelines, which said masks aren’t required for those who are fully vaccinated.

“The science is clear: If you are fully vaccinated, you are protected, and you can start doing the things that you stopped doing because of the pandemic,” the CDC said in a May 13 statement. 

But the delta variant, combined with the large number of Americans who still refuse to get vaccinated, is creating a worrying upward trend in cases and hospitalizations. 

New data is demonstrating that the delta variant acts “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus,” according to Walensky, indicating that even some vaccinated people who are exposed to the delta variant “may be contagious and spread the virus to others.”

USA Today noted in its reporting that “ahead of the CDC’s announcement, several local governments—including Los Angeles County and St. Louis—began requiring vaccinated people to again wear masks, citing concerns about the delta variant.” 

State governments widely vary in what they’re requiring, however. In California, fully vaccinated people must mask in public transit and health care facilities but are mostly free to go maskless elsewhere. Unvaccinated individuals are required to wear masks indoors in all public spaces. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all New York state employees must be vaccinated by Labor Day or will be subject to what NBC New York characterized as “aggressive testing requirements.” 

The New York Times, confirming those tests would be weekly, noted that requirements would be even stricter for employees at state-run hospitals. Vaccinations will be required for all “patient-facing” health care workers at those facilities.

In Arkansas, by contrast, mask mandates were lifted in April, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an executive order in July preventing local entities from imposing masking rules. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott acted even sooner on that front, banning counties, cities, school districts, public health authorities, and government officials from requiring masks in May. The state is still “strongly encouraging” masks. 

The Washington Post noted that the new masking guidelines are causing economic anxiety, as “corporate chief executives are growing worried about bringing workers back into crowded offices, a move that many employers have scheduled for September.” 

The article went on to note that “the CDC’s decision to tailor its mask policy to conditions in individual counties means a patchwork of rules will govern the $21 trillion U.S. economy rather than the sort of uniform national standard companies prefer. Uncertainty about the protocol in each elevator, office, conference room, and factory will increase friction in the economy and could also impede decisive corporate action.” 

The article indicated that mandatory vaccinations aren’t being called for yet at companies, but it did hint that some executives are mulling additional steps aimed at guarding against the disruption that COVID-19 caused at the pandemic’s outset. 

Sources: CNBC, USA Today, NBC New York, New York Times, Washington Post

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