Those new guidelines stated that people who are vaccinated are able to go maskless in most settings, including indoor gatherings among other maskless people.
Yet the same poll found that most vaccinated Americans are keeping their masks on: 90% of fully vaccinated people said that they had worn a mask in the last seven days.
Notably, the question lacked specificity as to how those vaccinated people were masking.
While some national chains like Walmart, Starbucks, and Best Buy are allowing vaccinated customers to go maskless, many private businesses are still requiring all customers to wear a mask. And hospitals, public transportation, and airlines are all still asking everyone to wear a mask, vaccinated or not.
About 61% of the eligible American population has received at least one dose of the available COVID vaccines, according to the CDC, and President Biden has set a goal to hit 70% by July 4.
The poll results highlight a stark contrast between people who don’t plan to get vaccinated and those who either plan to get vaccinated, are partially vaccinated, or already are fully vaccinated: Less than half of the former group has used a mask in the last seven days, while 80 to 90% of the latter group have.
Masking quickly became a political issue, with far-right politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene most recently comparing mask mandates to the Holocaust.
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Christopher Sanford was eager to hop on a plane after getting vaccinated in January. Until that point, he had only flown once in the pandemic – to visit his mother in Texas.
“The whole world has cabin fever, and everybody wants to travel now, myself included,” Sanford, an associate professor of global health at the University of Washington, told Insider.
So three weeks ago, Sanford and his wife headed to Turkey, alongside a multitude of travelers embarking on their first flights in more than a year.
In the last two months, the average number of daily passengers recorded by the US Transportation Security Administration has risen 30%, from around 1.2 million in March to 1.6 million in May. Booking Holdings, a travel company that owns search engines like Priceline and Kayak, reported that its airline tickets sales jumped 49% during the first three months of 2021.
This uptick came as several countries reopened their borders to tourists: Iceland and Croatia have lifted quarantine requirements for US travelers, for example, as long as visitors show proof of vaccination. The European Union, meanwhile, expects to allow fully vaccinated Americans to visit this summer.
But Sanford said many of his patients still question whether traveling is safe – particularly as airports get crowded.
“I’m very heartened that things are slowly lurching back toward normal, but there’s a tremendous amount of fear, even after people have been vaccinated,” he said.
He offered a few tips for staying safe while flying, even if you’re vaccinated.
Flying was fairly low-risk even before vaccines
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people delay all travel until they’re fully vaccinated.
But scientists haven’t documented many cases of coronavirus transmission on flights, most likely for two reasons: Airplanes have strict mask requirements and solid air-filtration systems.
Air generally comes in through vents above your seat, then exits an aircraft through floor-level vents nearby, meaning it doesn’t circulate throughout the entire cabin. It’s also filtered through high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters, which can remove coronavirus aerosols (tiny airborne particles produced when people talk or exhale).
“If somebody is right next to you and they have COVID and they take their mask down, that elevates your risk,” Sanford said. “But if they’re several rows back, even if they don’t wear a mask and they have COVID, probably their exhaled air is going to go through a filter before you breathe it in and the risk then would be very low.”
A November study found that the rate of in-flight coronavirus transmission was just 1 case per 27 million travelers. By comparison, the rate of fatal car crashes in the US is around 12 deaths per 100,000 people.
Keep your mask on as much as possible
Aside from getting vaccinated, masks are still our strongest defense against transmission on planes, Sanford said.
A September review found no secondary COVID-19 cases on five Emirates flights with up to 2,000 passengers in total. That’s despite the fact that 58 passengers on the flights had tested positive for the coronavirus. The researchers attributed the lack of transmission to the airline’s strict masking protocol.
Put simply, “the more you wear a mask, the better – the less, the worse,” Sanford said.
Book a nonstop flight
The riskiest parts of traveling, Sanford said, are the steps leading up to a flight: cramming into buses that take you to a terminal or mixing with crowds as you wait to board. He recommended asking a friend to drive you to the airport, then finding a relatively isolated location to post up at your terminal.
If possible, he added, opt for a nonstop flight.
“The more stops, the more people, the more airports, the more mixing,” Sanford said.
Each of these elements increases your risk of infection – even if that risk is slim.
For short flights, eat before you arrive
US airlines and airports still require masks until at least September 13. But travelers can take off their masks while eating or drinking. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should, though.
Sanford recommended keeping your mask on for the entire duration of a short flight, which would require eating before you arrive at the airport. For longer flights, like Sanford’s recent 13-hour trip from San Francisco to Istanbul, you’ll probably need to eat and drink, though.
“If you’re doing a seven-hour flight, it’s not good not to drink water for seven hours,” Sanford said.
No need to put your mask on between bites, he added.
Seat selection doesn’t matter much
Research indicates that blocking off middle seats on planes can lower the risk of transmission on board.
An October preprint, which has yet to be peer reviewed, found that the chance of a passenger in coach contracting COVID-19 on a two-hour domestic flight was 1 in 3,900 if all seats were occupied. But when middles seats were kept empty, that risk went down to 1 in 6,400.
As of May, however, US airlines are no longer blocking off middle seats.
As far as other seating choices go, Sanford said there isn’t much data to suggest that window is better than aisle or vice versa. The research so far is mixed: One December study found that the coronavirus’ secondary attack rate on a domestic flight in Australia was greater among passengers in window seats than in aisle or middle seats. But other studies have found that people in aisle seats have more contact with other travelers during flights, which can increase their risk of infection.
“Things like seat selection have such a negligible, minimal effect on the ultimate risk,” Sanford said.
Splurging on a first-class ticket won’t reduce your risk
Although seats in first class are spaced farther apart, Sanford said that probably won’t cut your risk of infection.
“I don’t think it’s a huge difference and I would not spring for the money,” he said.
Indeed, a study last year documented an instance of coronavirus transmission in business class. A 27-year-old woman passed the virus to 12 other business-class passengers during a 10-hour commercial flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. The people at highest risk of infection were those less than two seats away from the woman.
Just two passengers in economy class were infected.
Don’t travel to a place where the hospital system is overwhelmed
The CDC advises US residents to avoid travel to 140 counties, including those in the European Union. But the agency has suggested that it might be safe for fully vaccinated Americans to travel internationally – with the caveat that they may be at increased risk for getting and spreading variants.
Sanford equated the CDC’s message to “a tepid thumbs down” for international travel. The key concern about traveling abroad, he added, is whether you’d be able to receive proper medical care at your destination.
“It’d be really bad for you and all concerned if you got COVID in India currently, with the healthcare system there full of patients already,” he said.
Still, Sanford added, there’s no need to worry about whether the airport you’re flying into has lots of international travelers.
“I don’t tell people to avoid international hubs,” he said. “I do tell them to avoid crowds.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been denounced for her repeated comparisons of mask-wearing and coronavirus vaccination efforts to the horrors suffered by Jews during the Holocaust, once said invoking Nazi history is “insulting” and “incomprehensible.”
According to CNN’s KFile, the Georgia Republican made the comments in a since-deleted 2019 Facebook live post, before she was a member of Congress.
Greene directed her remarks at Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who at the time had come under fire for tweeting that migrant detention facilities at the US-Mexico border under the Trump administration function like concentration camps. “We are calling these camps what they are because they fit squarely in an academic consensus and definition,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
Several GOP lawmakers, including Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California and Liz Cheney of Wyoming, criticized Ocasio-Cortez’s statements, while Democrats, such as Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, came to her defense.
Greene slammed Ocasio-Cortez at the time, saying the comparison is “just so disturbing,” per CNN.
“She should be shamed by everyone that she’s actually using those terms and making that comparison,” Greene said. “And I think it’s an embarrassment to our country that we actually have a congresswoman that would do such a thing. And I’m calling her out big time. I think everyone should call her out.”
“She should never, ever, make that comparison,” Greene continued. “It’s insulting, extremely insulting to the families who have family members that were murdered or survived concentration camps. And that just shows you a lot about who she is as a person. And then also anyone that agrees with her and the Democrat party.”
Greene’s newly-unveiled comments come as top House Republicans, including McCarthy, have condemned the congresswoman for her recent likening of mask-wearing and vaccine rules to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.
“Vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like the Nazi’s forced Jewish people to wear a gold star,” Greene tweeted on Tuesday. “Vaccine passports & mask mandates create discrimination against unvaxxed people who trust their immune systems to a virus that is 99% survivable.”
The “gold star” reference, which historians more commonly refer to as a yellow star, was an identifier that Nazi Germany forced Jews to wear.
Greene said last week that the House mask mandate enforced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “exactly the type of abuse” Nazis committed against Jews.
McCarthy, the House minority leader, said on Tuesday that Greene’s language was “wrong” and “appalling.” At least one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, has called for Greene’s expulsion from the House Republican conference.
Greene has since doubled down on her stances and used the controversy to attack Democrats, saying they are “reminiscent of the great tyrants of history.”
Greene’s office did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment.
The Federal Aviation Administration proposed fines of up to $15,000 for five airline passengers accused of interfering with and assaulting flight attendants.
The FAA announced passengers on JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest Airlines engaged in aggressive behavior, including hitting, yelling, and shoving, with flight attendants.
One passenger fined $15,000 shoved a flight attendant when the worker had walked down the aisle to document which passengers were not wearing face masks, the FAA said in a release. Another passenger who was fined $10,500 yelled and shouted profanities at a flight attendant after they asked him to put on a face mask.
The agency said it has received 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers since January 2021. About 1,900 of the reports deal with passengers who refused to comply with the federal facemask mandate.
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Flight attendants recently told Insider the pandemic has made passengers more aggressive and less patient due in part to enforcing mask requirements on board.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on January 21 making face masks mandatory on airlines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said both vaccinated and unvaccinated people must keep masks on in airports and on public transportation.
Passengers who receive a proposed penalty for unruly behavior have 30 days to respond, a FAA spokesperson told Insider.
Within the 30 days, the spokesperson said passengers can pay the full penalty, provide documentation and request a lower penalty, provide documentation showing they are financially unable to pay the fine, provide information indicating the violation did not occur, ask to meet with the FAA to discuss the case, or appeal the judge’s decision to the FAA Administrator.
If passengers do not respond within 30 days, the FAA sends a Final Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty.
Adrienne Lenhoff started to panic at the airport last week. She was flying from Detroit to Florida to celebrate her grandfather’s 100th birthday, almost a month after her second Moderna shot. But Lenhoff didn’t expect travelers to crowd so close in line – or that middle seats would no longer be kept empty.
“I almost got off the plane,” she told Insider.
It didn’t matter that the airline, Delta, was still requiring masks. Lenhoff would have worn one anyway. In fact, she wore two – and even that didn’t feel like enough.
“Had I known that I was stepping onto a full flight, I probably would have had a face shield on also,” Lenhoff said. She did fly in the end, she added, but mostly “sat there in panic mode.”
Lenhoff is 53 years old and owns a public-relations firm. Like many Americans, she said, she was surprised when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that fully vaccinated people could ditch their masks at indoor and outdoor gatherings of any size – even with unvaccinated people present.
Lenhoff said she plans to keep wearing her mask in public settings indefinitely, especially around those who haven’t been vaccinated yet. She’s worried about how long her vaccine protection will last, and whether new variants will put vaccinated people like her in harm’s way again.
“As restrictions get thrown out the window, or completely relaxed, you don’t know if the person who’s sitting next to you has had their shot or not, where they’ve been, who they’ve been exposed to,” Lenhoff said. “So even somebody like me who has been vaccinated, there is no guarantee that I’m not going to get COVID.”
The current vaccines reduce the risk of getting COVID-19 by around 66% to 95%, depending on which you get. But many “ultra-maskers” – fully vaccinated people who want to keep wearing masks, even in settings where it’s not required – lost trust in the CDC’s recommendations after the agency told people not to wear masks at the start of the pandemic. So they’re not changing their ways now.
Some people who want to keep masking up are also concerned about endangering friends and family who aren’t vaccine-eligible. Others worry that a bare face sends the message that they don’t care about the people around them. Many of these ultra-maskers are considering making face coverings a permanent fixture in their lives, even after the pandemic is over.
“It will be a long time, if ever, before I won’t have a stash of masks in my laptop bag or in my purse,” Lenhoff said.
Many ‘ultra-maskers’ have a hard time trusting the CDC
Njeri Rutledge, a 50-year-old professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, attended a wedding just days after the CDC announced the new mask guidelines. Rutledge is fully vaccinated, but she kept her mask on the whole time, except when eating.
“I was the only person who walked in with a mask,” she told Insider. “I felt very uncomfortable.”
She became even more frustrated, she said, when she saw maskless guests hugging and shaking hands.
“My husband kept trying to tell me, ‘Well the CDC says it’s OK,’ but the problem is, I don’t trust the CDC anymore,” Rutledge said. “This is the same CDC who said, ‘You don’t need masks, save them for the doctors.’ So they just don’t have a lot of credibility to me.”
Several other ultra-maskers also told Insider that the CDC’s initial flip-flopping on masks is the reason they aren’t heeding the agency’s advice now. A January study found that requiring masks for public-facing US employees starting March 14 (instead of the patchwork of state mandates several weeks – or, in some cases, months – later) could have saved the lives of 34,000 people.
“They put people in a position where we were scrambling, sewing together underwear to make masks because they were all gone,” Rutledge said.
Before considering going maskless in public, she said, she’s waiting until a larger share of the country is vaccinated – and her 11-year-old daughter can get a shot. As an African-American woman, Rutledge added, she’s had to be extra careful, since the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Black people have a nearly three times higher risk of being hospitalized with COVID-19 than white people in the US.
“The CDC and the politicians created an environment where everyone is responsible for their own behavior, their own safety,” Rutledge said. “Well, if that’s the case, then I’m going to choose to be as careful as possible.”
Some Americans still see masks as a sign of respect
For Leah Spingarn, a 25-year-old law student at Northeastern University, masks aren’t just about safety – they’re a statement of solidarity.
“I’m a young, healthy person with no pre-existing health conditions. I don’t wear a mask because I’m worried I’m going to die,” Spingarn told Insider. “But I’m very happy to wear one every day that it means someone feels a little more respected.”
Spingarn and others like her see masks as a sign of respect for immunocompromised people who either can’t get vaccinated or for whom vaccines are less effective. Spingarn said that after watching her uncle suffer from ALS, she started to wonder why visitors at hospitals hadn’t covered their faces before the pandemic.
“Why aren’t we wearing masks when we know we’re around really, really sick people, and we know that there’s a chance this could just make it better for someone else?” she said.
Several ultra-maskers also cited the advantages of masks for people who often find themselves victims of harassment – including those who are nonbinary, transgender, and gender-nonconforming, or people with facial differences such as paralysis or a cleft lip. Mask mandates helped many of these individuals remain anonymous in society for the first time.
Andrea Chin, a 32-year-old researcher in Seattle, said she feels safer behind a mask as an Asian-American woman.
“I’ve experienced neighbors and people in my community using racial slurs and threatening physical violence,” she told Insider. “Wearing a mask makes me less nervous about someone spitting in my face, which did happen to me while living in California after the SARS epidemic.”
Spingarn is set to receive her second vaccine dose on Monday. Her university announced this week that by June, it will no longer require fully vaccinated students, faculty, or staff to wear masks indoors. But Spingarn said she plans to continue wearing a mask in the classroom, no matter what her peers do.
“You never know who’s in the room,” she said. “When you talk about COVID or you’re making a decision about wearing a mask, you have no idea how that’s hit the person next to you.”
Masks keep people safe from other seasonal viruses
Like many people in the US, Tatyannah King knew several people who died of COVID-19.
“The pandemic made me hyper-aware of mortality in a way that I didn’t think twice about beforehand,” King, a 25-year-old graduate student at Widener University, told Insider. “There are people I knew who have died not too long after contracting COVID, and yet they were around the same age as I am and just as physically healthy as I am.”
Even now that she’s vaccinated, King is struggling to let her guard down.
“At first I was thinking, ‘OK, we’re finally starting to experience the end of this pandemic,'” she said. “But then when I see that people are still dying from it, even recently, it’s a really tough pill to swallow.”
Plus, King added, she’s gotten used to some of the benefits of mask-wearing – like not having to worry as much if people cough or sneeze next to her on airplanes.
“When the temperature checks and mask mandates went into place at the airport, I never saw a sick person on any of my flights,” she said.
She also plans to wear a mask at conferences in the future.
“At nearly every business conference I’ve been to, at least one person would already be sick and then somehow spread their cold to multiple people by the end of the conference,” King said. “It’s so common that it’s almost a running joke at some conferences, like, ‘Hey, don’t forget to stock up on your Vitamin C or you’re definitely going to get the flu.'”
A 2013 study found that masks can reduce the number of viral influenza particles that people shed. Research has also shown that surgical masks reduce transmission of other human coronaviruses. Though the flu and cold are milder than COVID-19, King said, she’d happily wear a mask to avoid them.
“When I’m on flights from now on, until the day I die, I will be wearing a mask,” King said, adding, “even if I look silly, I don’t care – I just don’t want to get sick.”
Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia refused to wear a face mask on the House floor on Wednesday, continuing her protest against mask-wearing requirements.
Greene isn’t alone. Several other Republican lawmakers also openly defied House rules on Tuesday evening, appearing maskless while casting votes on the floor, according to C-SPAN footage. The Capitol physician, Brian Monahan, decided last week that House members must continue wearing masks on the House floor until all members and floor staffers are fully vaccinated.
Because at least 100 GOP House members haven’t said whether they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s unclear whether they are violating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors. Nine of the 10 GOP lawmakers cited for violating the rules haven’t said whether they’ve been vaccinated, according to a recent CNN survey. Greene refuses to reveal whether she’s gotten the shot.
In accordance with House rules, Greene will receive a warning for her first violation, along with Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Chip Roy of Texas, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Bob Good of Virginia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Mary Miller of Illinois, multiplenewsoutlets reported.
GOP Reps. Brian Mast of Florida, Beth Van Duyne of Texas, and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, who also flouted the rules and had already received their first warnings, will face a $500 fine, per the reports. Additional offenses would result in a $2,500 fine.
Under current rules, all House lawmakers must wear a face-covering on the floor except for when speaking, debating, or presiding over House proceedings. Fines for refusing to wear a mask were established by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the wake of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, when several members sheltered-in-place together and many were maskless. At least a handful of lawmakers later tested positive for COVID-19.
Although the fine will be deducted from the member’s congressional salary, some lawmakers are calling on their supporters to make donations. Mast asked voters in an email to contribute to his “fight against Pelosi and the Washington Lockdown Cheerleading Squad” which is “going to get expensive FAST,” Punchbowl News reported on Wednesday. The Iowa Republican Party, on behalf of Miller-Meeks, also tweeted a donation link “to help us fight back and retire Pelosi in 2022.”
The GOP mask protest comes after the CDC last Thursday announced fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors or outdoors at gatherings of any size, except in healthcare settings, on public transportation, at homeless shelters, and at airports. Private companies may still enforce mask mandates as they see fit.
Pelosi said last Thursday the House rule would stay in place despite the CDC’s guidance, noting not all lawmakers had been fully vaccinated yet.
But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is expected to force a vote on a resolution to revise the mask guidelines on Wednesday night. But the resolution is expected to be tabled by Democrats.
“The continued House mask mandate sends the erroneous message that the efficacy of the vaccines cannot be trusted,” the GOP resolution says. “Members of the House of Representatives have a responsibility to send a message to the American people that we can trust the safety and efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines.”
Some states had already lifted mask requirements, and many others followed after the latest release from the CDC. New Jersey is the only state that will continue to require masks for vaccinated people in most settings.
Businesses also updated their own individual guidelines. Walmart, Costco, Starbucks, and other retailers said that fully vaccinated customers won’t need masks unless required by local guidelines.
New York state, where I live, lifted mask requirements on May 19.
For the first time in over a year, I walked inside a public building without wearing a mask or any other face covering.
It felt so strange, almost like being naked in public.
As I walked past the greeter, who was wearing a mask, I momentarily worried that he was going to chastise me or not let me enter.
The only noticeable difference between today and last week was that signs noting mask requirements were removed from the entrance.
At least 90% of the people I saw during my shopping trip were masked up. Some even wore two masks.
I felt like some other masked customers gave me a second glance or confused look, but it could also be that I was self-conscious for my first mask-less outing in a year.
Walmart says that fully vaccinated workers don’t need to wear masks either, though every single employee I saw was masked up.
I’m so grateful to be fully vaccinated and I felt completely safe going maskless.
The discomfort for me was more about what other people would think about me.
Of course, I know I’m fully vaccinated, but I don’t want other people to think that I’m being selfish, especially workers who have to be there and interact with hundreds of strangers each day.
While I was in the store, I heard several announcements about vaccine availability and walk-in visits. I think it’s likely that many of the other shoppers were vaccinated.
Just like wearing masks took some getting used to, so will not wearing them. I expect to see fewer people wearing masks in about a week.
It’s also worth noting that I went the first morning restrictions lifted. As a reporter, I spend hours tuned into news coverage, but the average shopper stopping to grab a few things might not have seen what date the new rules went into effect.
I’ll continue going maskless where it is safe to do so (most places besides public transportation), but I think I’ll carry a mask in my bag forever, just in case.
On Monday May 24, Amazon will nix its mask requirement for fully vaccinated operations employees in the US. Exceptions will apply to employees in states or localities that retain mask mandates. In communications sent to workers, the e-commerce giant said that “all other COVID-19 Safety protocols remain the same at this time.”
The company sent out a push notification on its internal A to Z app that said maskless employees must be “14 or more days past your final dose of vaccine (the second dose in a 2-dose series for Pfizer or Moderna or single dose for Johnson & Johnson) and have a copy of your vaccine card.”
Amazon isn’t alone in changing its policies. Most states are relaxing their mask rules, and plenty of brick-and-mortar retailers, including Costco, are dropping mask requirements for shoppers, and Walmart has extended the policy to vaccinated employees as well.
In terms of rolling out its new policy, Amazon is asking workers to enter their vaccine information onto the A to Z app, as well as claim their $40 per dose benefit. Currently, the company also has listed a number of regions where masks will still be required, for the time being, regardless of employees’ vaccination status.
Amazon plans to distribute badge stickers of green check marks to vaccinated workers in early June. By mid-June, the company will ask its workers to upload images of their vaccine cards to A to Z.
“A HUGE thank you to everyone who has and continues to prioritize our COVID-19 safety measures,” the message to employees read. “The last 14 months have not always been easy, but your dedication continues to be appreciated by leaders and customers across the country. We cannot wait to see your smile.”
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An Amazon executive said eliminating mask mandates for fully vaccinated people will reduce vaccine hesitancy.
Dave Clark, Amazon’s chief executive officer of consumer business, praised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to recommend fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in most places.
“I think the guidance we just got from the CDC is big,” Clark said during the US Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery on May 18. “This ability to be able to, if you’ve been vaccinated, not wear a mask indoors I think is going to go a long way to help reduce hesitancy.”
Clark said he heard frontline Amazon workers question why they need to get vaccinated if they’ve been coming to work for months and still need to social distance. But getting vaccination clinics on Amazon work sites had led to a 20% increase in the number of employees getting shots, Clark said.
“People needed to see and hear that there was actually a path forward,” Clark added. “I think as that picture becomes clearer, you’re going to see more and more people, I hope, shift and go take the vaccine.”
Following the CDC’s recommendation to ease COVID restrictions for fully vaccinated people, major retailers like Target, Walmart, and Costco said they will not require fully vaccinated shoppers to wear masks. Amazon has not yet announced whether it will change mask policies in warehouses and fulfillment centers based on the CDC guidance.
More than 122 million US adults have been fully vaccinated as of May 18, representing 47% of the adult population, per the CDC. Cases of COVID-19 are steadily declining in the US, and hospitalizations due to the disease have record lows in New York and California.
The CDC recommends fully vaccinated people still wear masks in healthcare settings, homeless shelters, public transportation, and airports, and allowed private companies to enforce mask rules as they see fit.
The new rules put retail workers in a bind. For some, ending confrontations with customers over masks is a welcome respite after a difficult year, but others remain worried about contracting COVID-19 and low vaccination rates.
Starbucks pointed Insider to the company’s updated COVID-19 response page, which says that face coverings are optional for fully vaccinated customers beginning Monday, May 17. Employees will continue to be required to wear double masks.
A Starbucks worker in Connecticut told Insider that she is concerned as a “chronically ill and high-risk barista,” and is considering leaving her job over mask mandates lifting. The worker and others cited in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly on the topic, and their employment was confirmed by Insider.
Masks are technically still required for unvaccinated customers, but in practice workers can’t police each person’s vaccination status.
A barista in Michigan who works at a Starbucks near a hospital shared concerns about the potential spread of the virus among immunocompromised patients.
“We can’t verify if the people coming in without a mask have been vaccinated or not, and we’re outside of a hospital so people with compromised immunities have to share spaces with people who have no mask on,” the worker said. “I’m worried we’re going to end up with another spike in cases.”
At the same time, many Starbucks workers have shared in interviews and on social media message boards that they are ready to end uncomfortable confrontations with customers over masks.
“It isn’t like the system was great when we were enforcing masks,” the Michigan barista said. “We still had people take masks down to talk to us, people who only wore face shields and would talk over the espresso bar, and kids who put their hands on everything and had no mask on at all.”
A Pennsylvania employee said that she and her coworkers struggled to enforce mask mandates prior to the revised CDC guidance.
Store management did not confront customers who refused to wear masks, and that made other employees uncomfortable when it came to enforcing the mandates, she said.
“We should not have to put ourselves in that situation and we should be able to ask disruptive customers to leave,” she said.
The past year has exposed the massive demands put on retail workers, often for relatively low pay and few benefits, even as they were called heroes and essential workers. While tasked with enforcing mask mandates and interacting with customers during the height of a pandemic, many workers reported abuse, harassment, and assault on the job. A West Coast barista told Insider that she was “punched by a grown man” for asking him to wear a mask before restrictions were lifted.
These conflicts in customer-facing jobs over the past year have helped fuel a mass exodus from the retail industry as a growing number of openings in the labor market are making it easier for retail workers to transition to new careers.