The two governors are not alone in taking this drastic step either. Both Iowa and Montana lifted mask mandates last month. Public health officials, however, are urging residents in all states to continue wearing masks and practice social distancing. Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor on the COVID-19 response, told CNN that hasty reversal of restrictions is a mistake. President Biden, meanwhile, said Tuesday, “This fight is far from over… I urge all Americans, please keep washing your hands, stay socially distanced, wear masks.”
While there is very good reason for optimism regarding the country’s progress on controlling spread of the virus—statistics are drastically improving across the U.S., and vaccination efforts are ramping up significantly—only about 10 percent of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated at present, the country is still reporting around 2,000 deaths per day from the virus, new variants are circulating, and testing is down (which means we might not be getting an accurate picture of case count).
“It is dangerous to ease up on virus transmission prevention programs now,” says epidemiologist David Michaels, PhD, MPH. “It’s too soon to allow uncontrolled contact between potentially infectious people.” While we’ve succeeded in driving down the rate of new cases, this progress seems to have plateaued. “I haven’t seen anything that warrants this relaxation of precautions,” he says. “In fact, reports of the increase in prevalence of new variants suggests the opposite. A review of the experiences of Brazil, Ireland, Portugal, or Denmark—countries where these one of the variants has taken hold—suggests that we’ll start seeing more cases, followed by more deaths. The last thing we should be doing is loosening restrictions.”
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Still, Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, and Montana aren’t the only states relaxing restrictions now in anticipation of a brighter future. Massachusetts is now allowing restaurants to operate at full capacity, San Francisco is reopening gyms, South Carolina is no longer restricting large gatherings, and New York is allowing stadiums to hold sporting events and concerts, for example.
Such disparities in local mandates are not new. COVID-19 restrictions have varied by state throughout the pandemic, with some mandating fewer precautions than others; however it appears that now, more than ever, the responsibility for protecting oneself from COVID-19 in many places across the U.S. will fall solely to the individual.
And without widespread masking, self-protection may prove difficult for those working in customer-facing or otherwise interactive jobs. After all, the best protection from COVID-19 occurs when both parties in an interaction wear masks, as opposed to just one party doing so. And of course, being indoors and not socially distanced without masks offers the virus an ideal opportunity to spread. The majority of America’s population is still vulnerable to infection in these scenarios—Dr. Michaels says tens of millions of seniors alone have yet to be vaccinated.
How exactly can you continue to protect yourself if those around you no long choose to practice public health safety measures? Obviously, there are some things over which you still have control. For example, if you don’t feel comfortable gathering indoors at restaurants or joining large mask-less gatherings, you can opt out of those activities. You can also continue to wear masks or double masks for as long as feels comfortable for you, and maintain boundaries with friends with respect to social distancing and other precautions.
And just because a mask mandate has been lifted in certain states, like Texas, this doesn’t mean that businesses are required to allow mask-less patrons. Individual establishments can continue to mandate masks in their place of business, though this is likely to put added pressure on business owners to police citizens who’ve been given the green light to ditch masks by top officials in their state governments. So-called “Karens”—mask-rejecting contrarians—may soon be everywhere as, after all, their approach will no longer be strictly contrarian.
But if your work requires you to make contact with such mask-less individuals, you need not necessarily despair. Federal law requires that employers offer workplaces free of recognizable hazards, says Dr. Michaels. “If you work in a retail facility where unmasked customers congregate, your employer should make extra efforts for your safety and that includes requiring masks on customers, but also ensuring that there is adequate ventilation as fresh air, and it may require your employer to provide you with an actual respirator rather than simply a face mask, like an N95,” he says. “I think all employers should know that no matter what their governor says, federal law requires them to provide a safe workplace.”
Employees who do not feel they’re being adequately protected can organize for those protections, says Dr. Michaels. He also notes that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which he ran for over seven years, will issue a mandatory standard later this month that is likely to contradict the lifting of mask mandates. OSHA is a regulatory agency of the Department of Labor which can set and enforce safety standards for business. In this case, they are likely to set standards specific to protecting employees from virus transmission, and those who are noncompliant can face fines. Ideally, this will restore safe work environments, protecting those who are as of yet unvaccinated but have no choice but to risk exposure.
While it’s tempting to view this sudden lifting of restrictions here, there, and everywhere as permission to pretend the pandemic is over, we still have a ways to go before public health officials believe it’s safe to relax. With that said, Dr. Michaels doesn’t think we’ll be wearing masks for the rest of the year. After all, President Biden says there will be enough vaccines for every adult in the U.S. by May, which is only two months away. And after twelve months of masking, that short span of time is but a drop in the bucket—to stay safe, hold steady the course, no matter what yours or any other governor says.
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