As more states shed their universal mask mandates for those who are vaccinated, many Americans are weighing how much faith to put in the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in the integrity of their unvaccinated peers, who are supposed to follow the rules and keep wearing masks.
In the wake of last week's surprise announcement from the Biden administration that vaccinated individuals can safely forgo their masks in most indoor public settings, governors of many states — Maryland, Kentucky, Oregon and New York among them — are revising their mask mandates.
Lifting mask mandates represents a monumental step toward a pre-pandemic public life and confidence in the United States' vaccine-driven offensive against the coronavirus, but the move is not being met with enthusiasm everywhere.
"I would have preferred to wait," says Dr. Jeff Duchin, the health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, which serves more than 2 million people in the Seattle metro area.
In western Washington — the epicenter of the first known U.S. outbreak of the coronavirus — people have adopted masking with zeal, both as a protective measure and as a gesture of solidarity around the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Turning on a dime and stopping wearing masks, even if I'm fully vaccinated, just feels very sudden," says Angie Kamel, while walking through Seattle's Alki Beach neighborhood.
And some people worry that without universal mask requirements, an "honor code" approach will be ripe for abuse.
"I don't trust other people," said Jillian Rose, as she waited in line to get her COVID-19 shot the other day. "We're late in the game, so think about how many other people are out there and are not going to get it at all?"
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has taken a decidedly cautious approach to managing the pandemic and has scarcely appeared in public without a mask, yet within hours of the CDC's announcement, Inslee kicked off his regular televised address by removing his own mask.
"That shot is a ticket to freedom from masks," Inslee said of his decision to eliminate the statewide universal mask mandate in favor of the CDC's recommendations. "People who have been annoyed by this mask, it's a really good reason to get vaccinated."
Solid science, questionable policy?
Inslee's decision rattled some of Washington's public health officials, who point out the state is just now getting over a fourth wave of the coronavirus — one that pushed hospitalizations to the second-highest level of the pandemic.
"We probably need to assume there will be unvaccinated people without masks in most indoor public settings going forward," Duchin says.
More than half of adults are fully vaccinated in the region, but much of Washington still remains at "substantial" or "high" risk of coronavirus transmission, according to the CDC's criteria. And like elsewhere in the U.S., vaccination rates vary significantly within the state — often low-income neighborhoods and communities of color lag behind more affluent areas.
"What it did was give the indication to people that the pandemic is over," says Dr. Mark Larson, the health officer in rural Kittitas County, Wash., who calls the governor's decision "premature."
"We don't see the incentive. ... Most of the folks that are not really wanting to be vaccinated have probably not already been wearing masks."
Infectious disease experts generally agree that the scientific rationale behind the CDC's recommendations is solid: Vaccinated people are at extremely low risk of contracting COVID-19 or spreading the coronavirus to other people, according to recent studies.
"None of that worries me," says Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist and associate dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health. "But there are a lot of hanging questions: What is the enforcement? What is the communication going to be?"
"We have a lot of people who are still not eligible for vaccines — kids are an example — or we have people who need to get the vaccine, but maybe they want to get some questions answered first," Baseman says.
For her part, Baseman was comforted the other day when she entered a store and saw a sign up requiring masks.
"I was there with one of my children who was not vaccinated. And I would like to have as high a level of protection for him and others like him as possible," she says.
The country's largest nurses union has come out against the adoption of the CDC guidance, but other organizations and people who work in health care don't have the same level of concern.
"I am comfortable following the CDC recommendations," says Dr. Nariman Heshmati, vice president of the Washington State Medical Association. "It was a transition to wear masks, and it's probably going to be a transition to not wear masks, but we're adaptable and we should follow the data."
The federal guidance does still advise that people wear masks in certain indoor settings, like on public transit or in a health care facility.
Mask rule gets mixed reaction
In Seattle, masking still tends to be ubiquitous, even outdoors, where the CDC has previously said the risks are very low and does not require people to wear masks in most cases.
After 14 months of pandemic precautions, people are still making sense of what the new guidance means for their daily lives.
"It's confusing because I feel like a couple of weeks ago everybody was saying, 'Oh, my gosh, there are so many cases — wear your mask,' " says Jennifer Geer, while walking her dog in Seattle. "Now all of a sudden, we've swung the pendulum the other way, which seems bizarre."
But some who are fully vaccinated are more than happy to trust the judgment of state and federal scientists.
"If they say it's OK to take the mask off, I'm assuming that's fine," says Javier Reyna. "If you're not vaccinated and you want to take a risk, that's your problem — I did what I was supposed to do."
The shift away from masks came as a relief to Omar Shishani, who's unvaccinated but says he still feels comfortable going into an indoor space where many people aren't wearing masks.
"People want to live their lives normally again, so I think it's a positive thing," he says.
Even with Washington's relatively successful vaccination campaign, a line stretching around the block at a recent pop-up clinic in West Seattle served as a reminder that many are still unprotected against the virus.
Lora Radford, who leads the local business association there, says the change in masking rules has sparked a lot of questions.
"The businesses were thrown for a loop. We weren't sure what to do next," she says.
Radford doesn't want to put businesses in a situation where they have to be "enforcers" and "card" people for their vaccine status. But she is encouraged that most people coming to stores and restaurants are still wearing masks and social distancing, without any prodding.
"Even independent of what the CDC or Fauci or Governor Inslee says, I still think we're also going to lean into caution and — not require — but ask people to keep masked up for now," she says.
Nearby, Jay Jentoft is waiting for 15 minutes after getting his vaccine. It took him longer to get vaccinated because he was holding out until he could find the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine.
Once he's fully vaccinated, Jentoft says, he'll feel safe not wearing a mask indoors, but he may keep it on when he goes into stores anyway.
"I've got a hunch it's going to be business as usual: everybody wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart," he says. "So just for the sake of my fellow man, I'm going to put it on so they don't feel awkward."