(Bloomberg) — The U.S.’s latest guidelines for the fully vaccinated came as a relief to many: Small groups of people can safely gather outdoors without masks. State-by-state, though, it’s a complicated patchwork of rules for an issue that’s been the focus of intense political debate.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcement Tuesday “liberating.” He said the state will adopt the guidance. “But I don’t want New Yorkers to get the wrong idea,” he said at a briefing. “Covid is still dangerous.”
The CDC started recommending that Americans wear masks a year ago, after countries including China and South Korea had urged their citizens to use them to slow the virus’s spread. Ever since, the issue has pitted Americans against one another. Proponents cite data showing face coverings cut the risk of a Covid-19 infection, while others argue that wearing a mask is a matter of personal choice and shouldn’t be mandatory.
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Anyone venturing outdoors still should assess risk for themselves, according to George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California-San Francisco medical school.
“If you’re talking about going to a rock concert in New York City and you’re sitting there in Strawberry Fields surrounded by 100,000 people who are hacking, coughing and smoking dope, that’s not a safe environment,” Rutherford said in a phone interview.
In Rolla City, Missouri, where mandatory masking was likened to life in Nazi Germany, the face-coverings issue was a city council agenda item for months, according to Deanne Lyons, whose elected term expires next year. “At my first meeting ever as a city council person, someone from our community showed up and said wearing mask was like being forced to wear the Star of David during the Holocaust,” Lyons, a 26-year-old delivery driver, said.
Voters tossed out five city council members who had supported the rule. Moriah Renaud, a 28-year-old naturopath who was among the victors, said “my issue all along was not I don’t like masks. My issue is this is America and I believe in freedom.”
Protesters from coast to coast have invoked similar arguments. In North Carolina on March 28, videos showed hundreds of mask-less worshipers at an outdoors Christian revival service, in defiance of a face-covering mandate by Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat. In Beverly Hills, California, on April 21, a half-dozen demonstrators stood outside an elementary school, criticizing mask requirements and trying to hand fliers to students.
For some, the matter isn’t political. A track coach persuaded Oregon to drop mandatory masking for high school athletes after a runner lost consciousness during a race last week. Others say they have health problems that would be worsened by covering their mouths and noses, or are parents of developmentally disabled children who can’t comply.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat who announced larger crowd caps for some indoor and outdoor events, said his state “will take the CDC guidance seriously.”
“Our guidance for masking outdoors from the get-go in this pandemic has been: You need to wear a mask if you can’t socially distance,” Murphy said in an MSNBC interview. “If you can, you don’t need to.”
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, a Republican who had left any masking mandates to mayors, said he won’t renew any Covid-19 public-health orders. He’s also asking leaders in the six biggest counties to remove face-covering orders and business restrictions before Memorial Day, on May 31, at the start of summer vacation season. Nashville, the state’s largest city and its tourist-drawing capital, already scrapped outdoor mask mandates on April 9.
California, the most populous U.S. state, requires masking outdoors if people from different households can’t separate by at least six feet. The mandate is widely followed in liberal-leaning places like the San Francisco-Bay area and may be helping to tamp down cases: The state’s test positivity rate is 1.2%, the lowest in the nation.
But on Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s Twitter page is a reminder about face coverings in public places. He has said that some mask requirements likely will be in place after the planned full reopening of California’s economy in June.
“The biggest mistake in this country that’s being perpetuated are people that are just giving up and not requiring these face coverings, and just assuming that mission somehow is accomplished. It’s not,” Newsom said at an April 15 press briefing. “This disease will come roaring back. Ask the governor of Michigan.”
That state, with the nation’s highest Covid-19 case rate, on Monday started requiring children as young as 2 to wear masks. Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday called such treatment child abuse and said his conservative audience was “morally obligated to prevent it.”
Seven weeks after Texan Republican Governor Greg Abbott lifted restrictions, including a mask mandate, the state’s biggest population center remains under a Level 1 emergency order. That “signifies a severe and uncontrolled level of Covid-19,” according to the website for Harris County, which includes Houston, the state’s most populous city.
Connecticut on Saturday will start lifting restrictions on bars, scrapping dining-table caps and adding an hour to the 11 p.m. closing time for theaters, restaurants and other venues. On masking, though, the state expected to wait until May 19 to update its rules.
Connecticut health-department representatives didn’t immediately respond to an email asking whether the state instead will take up the federal masking guidance immediately. In the meantime, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, wears a mask in his Twitter photo and his page reads, “If you have to ask, wear a mask.”