Erick Robles, Abraham Ruvalcaba and Jordan Morales had their masks on while walking outdoors on May 16. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

The announcement on May 13 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in most settings continues to stir debate in cities across the country.

For some, the change is long overdue. For others, the CDC’s abrupt policy shift feels premature and puts the onus on individuals and businesses to implement the new guidelines.

People are now on their honor to wear a face covering if they have not received their final COVID-19 vaccine and waited two weeks for it to kick in – except in certain congregate settings such as health-care facilities, at businesses that mandate them, or on public transportation.

Akasha-Shani Terrier and her son, Daryl Harmon III, wore masks while grocery shopping. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

 President Joe Biden summarized the new federal guidelines in remarks delivered in the White House Rose Garden just hours after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced the change.

 “For now, the rule is very simple. Get vaccinated, or wear a mask until you do. … The choice is yours. 

“It’s not an enforcement thing. We’re not going to go out and arrest people. But the fact of the matter is, I still believe the vast majority of the American people care about the safety of their neighbors and care about the safety of their families,” President Biden said.

Also on May 13, the CDC updated its website, stating, “If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did before the pandemic.”

The announcement came 14 months to the day after the novel coronavirus was declared a national emergency.

On May 16, Dr. Walensky assured the public that the CDC’s sudden shift on masking was based solely on science. She also made some clarifications, including that “there’s no need for everybody to start ripping off their masks.”

“There is no mandate to take it off. What we’re saying is, now this is safe,” Dr. Walensky said. “Work at your own speed, work with your own family and your own businesses to remove them when necessary.”

On May 17, Governor JB Pritzker said in an interview with NBC5 Chicago that Illinois will follow the new CDC guidelines. He said he will proceed “carefully” and continue to wear his mask in some circumstances.

Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C. were following the new CDC mask guidance as of May 18.

Chicago and other cities have maintained their existing rules for mask wearing, even though guidelines have been relaxed at the State level. The Chicago Department of Public Health is currently reviewing the state’s new executive order, according to a statement released by that department.

Some Evanston residents stopped to talk with the RoundTable on the days that followed the new recommendations by the CDC. Most expressed surprise, caution and patience in response to the new CDC guidelines.

Akasha-Shani Terrier and her son, Daryl Harmon III, both wore masks while grocery shopping.

“I’m all for continuing to wear masks indoors. I’m fully vaccinated, but I work in a nursing home. Being that you’re fully vaccinated, the rule is, if you’re in a group of people that is fully vaccinated, then you can take the mask off. But if you’re out in public, you don’t know who’s vaccinated, who’s not.

“Why are we all being allowed to say, ‘Take the mask off?’ Because then you’re still susceptible to getting sick. So the way the IDPH [Illinois Department of Public Health] has put it is that you still put a mask on until you know for sure that everybody’s vaccinated. So I’m keeping my mask on,” Ms. Terrier told the RoundTable.

Lakshmi K. said wearing a mask is not much different than wearing sunglasses. (Photo by Heidi Randhava)

Daryl, an eighth-grade student athlete at Nichols Middle School, said that he and his Nichols teammates play basketball with their masks on.

 “I’m not vaccinated, but I feel you should still continue to wear a mask even if you are vaccinated, because you could still get sick,” he said.

Ashanti Cole-Stallworth also said she plans to continue to follow the guidelines that were in place before May 13.

“How do I feel about the new CDC guidance? Well it makes me uncomfortable, because we do not know who is vaccinated and who is not. Also, I think that we should wait to see how the vaccine works on the population before making a decision like that,” said Ms. Cole-Stallworth.

Erick Robles, Abraham Ruvalcaba, and Jordan Morales had their masks on while walking outdoors on their way to get lunch at a local restaurant, two days after they were given the green light to safely shed the face coverings both outdoors and indoors.

When asked if they would continue to wear masks, they all said yes, especially in “crowded places, restaurants and big groups.”

Krissie Harris said, “I am still concerned. Many of us are not vaccinated yet, so a mask mandate to protect everyone is not unreasonable, to me at least.”

“I am going to keep wearing masks, because I have had a one-year experience of not falling sick even once. … Wearing a mask has made me feel that I’ve been safe, and it’s working. … The community – society – has accepted to see me with a mask. Before, if I would wear a mask, people would think I am sick. Now, it’s normal,” said Lakshmi K.

“Relief and disbelief … it hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” said Evan Girard when asked how she felt when the new mask guidance was announced.

Denise Martin, retired Assistant Superintendent/Principal at Evanston Township High School, summed up her feelings about the new mask guidance in five words: “Concerned. Still wearing mine indoors.”

The vaccination rate in the U.S. is slowing down, despite an ample supply of doses. As of May 18, 2021, only 37.3% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated, but the percentage was up to 72.8% for people over 65.

 Although COVID cases and deaths continue to fall, the U.S. was still averaging about 32,000 new cases a day as of May 18. As more adults get vaccinated, the number of cases of COVID-19 among children is increasing.

 Currently, children make up about one-quarter of the cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. In the week ending May 16, there were 49,000 cases in children, but it was the lowest number of child COVID cases since October, 2020.

 Lawrence O. Gastin is among the health experts who have expressed concern about the CDC’s sudden shift on masking. He cited a CDC update just weeks ago, on April 19, that recommended universal masking indoors, in his “Op-Ed: What Was CDC Thinking With Its New Mask Guidance?” published in MedPage Today on May 14.

 “Vaccines are almost flawless at preventing serious disease and death, and they do significantly reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission. But we knew that weeks ago. …

“My supposition is that CDC prematurely recommended ‘back to normal’ because it wanted to give hesitant people an incentive to get vaccinated… But individuals opposed to vaccines are just as likely (maybe even more likely) to just take off their masks as they are to get a jab,” wrote Dr. Gastin.

“I’ve worked with the CDC for decades, from the AIDS pandemic through to SARS, influenza, Ebola, and Zika. I know the staff are world class scientists and they work tirelessly for the public good. They are our modern-day heroes. It is therefore agonizing to see the erosion of public trust… We need an independent CDC with a steady hand,” wrote Dr. Gastin in his op-ed piece.

He is founding chair of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. He is also a professor of medicine at Georgetown, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, and directs the World Health Organization Center on National and Global Health Law.

Dr. William Moss, Executive Director, International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, also questioned the CDC’s initial one-size-fits-all recommendation in an interview on May 18 with John King on CNN’s Inside Politics.

“The CDC was in a difficult position, and came out with these new guidelines relaxing the mask mandate for those who are fully vaccinated… I think they could have done better in having a more transparent process on the decision making – giving us a little more of a heads-up – so individuals as well as businesses could have been prepared, recognizing that not all situations are equal.

“But I think, as Dr. [Anthony] Fauci said, people will have to make individual decisions, and businesses will have to make individual decisions,” said Dr. Moss.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.