The Bay Area, where COVID-19 vaccination and mask compliance both run high, awoke Wednesday to new state health rules letting those who’ve had the shots shed their face coverings in stores and many other indoor places.
And Yvonne Lindquist was grateful.
“I’m here all day, sometimes it’s just so hard to breathe,” a mask-less Lindquist said during her shift at Anthem Bed and Bath in Menlo Park, adding that it’s also easier to make sales when she doesn’t have to speak through a mask. But she kept one in her pocket in case a customer asks her to wear one. “I would honor whatever they want.”
An old sign on the door still says masks required, but she said the store owner may decide to remove it soon. Like everyone, they’re still figuring out how to navigate the change.
For Californians, the new rules mean vaccinated people generally don’t have to wear masks when inside businesses, retail stores, restaurants, theaters, family entertainment centers, meeting facilities and state and local government offices serving the public. The indoor mask rule still applies for public transportation, health care facilities, shelters, jails, prisons, long-term care facilities and K-12 schools.
But across the Bay Area on Wednesday, plenty of people still didn’t feel safe without masks as infection rates are still running high.
Both hairstylist Yvette Smith and her customer were vaccinated but wearing masks at Divine Beauty Salon in downtown Antioch.
“That’s the only thing that’s really working,” the 50-year-old stylist said of masks. Her brother was seriously ill from the virus, which she said is “no joke,” and she thinks the state is relaxing the mask rule too soon.
“It should never be lifted,” Smith said. “That’s my opinion until COVID is completely eradicated.”
The state rule shift comes as COVID-19 cases fall across California and the U.S. from a winter peak last month driven by the super-contagious omicron variant. The surge in infections had prompted California health officials in mid-December to reinstate the universal indoor masking requirement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend indoor masking for everyone regardless of vaccination in areas of substantial or high transmission of the virus, which CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday “is currently over 97% of our counties in the country.”
But over the past week, California and several other states with similar statewide mask rules announced plans to lift them, and Walensky said Wednesday the CDC is “looking at an overview of much of our guidance, and masking in all settings will be a part of that.”
“We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better,” Walensky said, “and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.”
Though the state mask mandates have been controversial, a CBS/YouGov poll this week found 56% of those surveyed support them, with higher numbers among the vaccinated and Democrats.
In California, the state allows local health authorities and businesses to continue requiring masks. Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties are maintaining the indoor mask rule. That didn’t sit well with Robert Fazio and his friend Robert Kosovilka, both in their 80s, who sat drinking coffee in the cab of a pickup truck in San Jose rather than subject themselves to masks in a cafe.
“What, the germs obey county boundaries?” scoffed Kosovilka, 80, a retired police officer. “It’s a pain in the ass and it’s stupid.”
But at San Jose’s Recycle Bookstore, owner Eric Johnson is happy to continue the mask-wearing policy, even though he was dubbed a “mask Nazi” last summer for requiring face coverings in his shop the last time the state eased restrictions. He still has four “masks required” signs taped on his front double doors, and believes the coverings have kept him from getting COVID-19, like when a coworker developed symptoms on their shift.
Even in other counties where businesses are free to let customers show their smiles, many like Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park were keeping up signs telling shoppers masks are still required Wednesday.
“Masks are staying on at Kepler’s for now,” said a manager, Brittany Caine.
That’s also still the rule at De Lauer’s gift shop in Alameda, where Miles Brown, 21, was wearing his mask behind the counter when customers entered.
“I’m gonna keep wearing it,” said Brown, who’s been infected, vaccinated and boosted, explaining that his dad has a weak immune system. “I can’t bring it home to him. If other people don’t need it, that’s their decision.”
At Mike’s Camera in Menlo Park, about half the workers weren’t wearing face coverings. Robert Silver, who works behind the counter for Panasonic, was one of them, and the “proudly vaxxed and boosted” Democrat felt there’s not much more people can do to be safe anymore.
“I did everything,” Silver said. “I’m good.”
But customer Matt Feuer put on his mask before entering after seeing so many people without, explaining that “I think people are still quite antsy.”
The change in rules, enforced by the honor system, created some friction at a Brentwood Trader Joe’s on Wednesday between shoppers who think the masks are a joke and those who see them as a survival tool. An unvaccinated woman who entered the store maskless noted the mask rule was widely ignored at the Super Bowl in Los Angeles County last weekend, though fans needed to be vaccinated or tested before entering.
But masked fellow shopper Deb Voss found the unvaccinated shopper infuriating.
“People are still contagious,” Voss said, “and still getting it.”
At Al’s Barber Shop in Alameda, owner Nick Vlahos had another reason for keeping his mask on.
“I’m a fan of the mask,” he says as he trimmed a customer’s hair, “I think it improves my looks.”