Let the mask-burning parties begin. Or maybe not.
As COVID-19 cases continue to decline and the number of people vaccinated increases, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced new guidelines for those who are fully vaccinated: No masks needed indoors or out, in large or small groups. The agency defines someone as fully vaccinated as of two weeks after their last shot.
Social distancing rules are also falling by the wayside for those fully immunized citizens.
“I think it’s a great milestone, a great day,” President Joe Biden said during remarks in the White House Rose Garden — and notably not wearing a mask. “It’s been made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.”
“The science has spoken, let us take off the masks!” said Rich Zeoli, a Philadelphia talk show host on 1210 WPHT, expressing the pent up exuberance that many feel after such a long span spent wearing a face covering, staying ‘socially distant,’ enduring endless Zoom meetings and generally living in the dystopian 2020-2021 pandemic world.
Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker echoed the enthusiasm. “Besides the announcement of the vaccine being approved, this is the largest announcement of the entire COVID-response. This is the announcement that marks the beginning of the end.”
Other area officials may not share the excitement, but they appear to be toeing the CDC line.
“Today’s guidance from the CDC affects only people who are fully vaccinated,” Pennsylvania Acting Board of Health Secretary Alison Beam said on Wednesday. “This is another incentive to get the vaccine that is now easily and conveniently available. Once 70 percent of Pennsylvanians over 18 are fully vaccinated, we can completely lift the masking order.”
Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County, said Friday, “We concur with the CDC guidelines, as adopted by PADOH, for vaccinated individuals. It will apply for County employees as well with a few exceptions at our county-run healthcare and congregate facilities.”
The guidance applies to all fully vaccinated people, including the 16 to 18-year-olds, and in a month or so, to some 12 to 15 years old youngsters. However, schools should continue to follow the state Department of Education guidance, she said.
“Individual workplaces and businesses may choose to follow these guidelines and post notice that vaccinated individuals are not required to wear masks,” said Cofrancisco. “Vaccinated Individuals in close proximity to others for a sustained period in locations other than the transportation areas where masking is required, may consider masking if they so choose.”
Jim O’Malley, a spokesman for Bucks County, said, “We are going with the CDC guidelines and concur with the state Department of Health.”
While most of the state and the Philadelphia collar counties are following the CDC’s guidelines, the City of Philadelphia, a more crowded urban area, is still reviewing them.
“Masks have been one of the most effective tools we have in stopping the spread of COVID-19,” the Philadelphia Board of Health said in a press release. “The Health Department wants to make sure that all of the implications of allowing people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID to go unmasked is understood. We expect to have a decision on this updated guidance within days.”
Businesses can make their own rules for people who visit their premises, she said.
Lindsay Kahn, a spokesperson for Brookfield Properties, which owns numerous malls around the country, including the Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem, said they follow the guidance of the CDC along with state and local officials.
“It’s up to the tenants to enforce mask-wearing decisions,” she said.
But not everyone is rushing to partake in this newfound freedom.
Dr. Robert Michaelson, a retired physician living in Montgomery County, said, “I think it is a great step forward from emerging from pandemic restrictions. But mask-wearing has decreased the incidence of influenza and other respiratory infections. So, while I do feel more comfortable increasing my activities, I would be reluctant to do ‘elective activities,’ for example indoor restaurants, large indoor and outdoor crowds.”
“During this pandemic, I have not been sick at all, no colds, no other flus, etc.,” said Radnor resident Jim Yannopoulos. “COVID-19 has made me aware of how much we unnecessarily exposed ourselves to communicable diseases before. I am fully vaccinated for COVID-19, but I will keep wearing a mask indoors in crowded situations. I will probably wear an N-95 mask for the rest of my life in places like the grocery store. There’s all sorts of yucky stuff you can catch from other people! And I do think anti-vaxxers will cheat and not wear masks.”
Philadelphian Scott Frost said, “The real story is how people will treat each other under these new guidelines. People asking people about if they are or aren’t (vaccinated) is simply not appropriate. Like a mask represents choice or not or who you voted for or where your allegiance lies.”
Wayne resident Leslie Morgan learned firsthand that some people will try to pick a fight with those who are not wearing masks, despite the latest CDC guidance.
“I think that the CDC, federal government, and the state with its current governor, agree with this. I say let freedom ring. And yet today while I was at my local coffee shop, I was absolutely harassed by a pudgy masked man in the back of the line for simply asking what their policy was,” Morgan said Friday. “I did not ask him. I asked the young and very polite barista who said they were waiting for the owner to arrive who I have known for 20 years. They had not developed a policy yet and were waiting for the owner. Which was completely acceptable to me while I was being verbally assaulted by some guy who resembled a wife beater.”
Next time, Morgan said, she’ll call the police.
“I think it’s a bad idea until things are more under control,” said Adam Fels, a Cheltenham resident. “It creates an opportunity where people that never complied and never vax can really fake it compliance wise and put others at risk.”
His mother, Elyse Ozer Fels, added, “I will still wear one at work until work says you don’t need to – I do work in a hospital. I’ll wear one in crowds, but as I’m fully vaccinated I guess at some point I’ll trust the vaccine.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that event and gathering maximum occupancy limits will be increased to 50 percent for indoor events and gatherings and 75 percent for outdoor events and gatherings effective on May 17.
“As more Pennsylvania adults get vaccinated and guidance from the CDC evolves, we can continue to move forward with the commonwealth’s reopening efforts,” Wolf said in a press release. “We recognize the significant strain businesses have faced during COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Throughout the last year and a half, we have seen businesses continue to put the safety of their patrons first, and I believe they will continue to do so even with this capacity increase.”