Wearing a face mask is becoming increasingly optional as pandemic rules ease across much of the U.S., the most visible shift in how millions of Americans today view the threat from.
Every state, with the exception of Hawaii, is either ditching or planning to eliminate mask mandates as the Omicron surge recedes, with infections and hospitalizations declining even as the disease continues to kill about 2,000 Americans a day. California, Nevada, New Mexico are among the states that discarded mask mandates this month. The return to some semblance of pre-pandemic life also includes some of the country's , with other companies going even further and for workers.
"I think people are more comfortable, so even when we had the mask requirement people were still coming out — but I think it makes a big difference," Javier Amaro, a vendor in Las Cruces, New Mexico, told a CBS affiliate.
New York and Rhode Island this month lifted indoor mask rules for businesses, but still require them in schools. Illinois, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C., plan to let mask requirements lapse by the end of March. A school mask order in Massachusetts is set to expire at the end of February.
Not everyone is pleased.
"I'm pretty uncomfortable with it," Massachusetts parent Kerry Arouca said after her state's announcement, according to the Associated Press. "I think that until we get a better handle on COVID-19 that the kids should do their best to keep their masks on, maybe some mask breaks outside until everybody is vaccinated."
In West Baton Rouge, Louisiana, one school district stopped requiring masks at the end of October. "Just knowing the pulse of our community, they were ready for it," Wesley Watts, the district's superintendent, explained.
Masks are also optional at a school district in Vienna, Illinois, following a judge's ruling invalidating a state mandate. "We're two years into this thing. So we do have some data, we have some trend history, we have some things we can look at," said Joshua Stafford, district superintendent.
"On the other side of that coin, you also have those who suffer from autoimmune disorders, other extenuating health circumstances, and that has to be weighed in the balance of this global pandemic," said Stafford, calling it "not an easy decision."
Not ready to de-mask
For Hawaii Governor David Ige, the decision to stick with the state's mask rules came more easily. Hawaii has the nation's second-lowest death rate from COVID-19 "in part because of the indoor mask mandate," Ige told local news station KITV.
Puerto Rick is also taking a more cautious approach, with the U.S. territory having no immediate plan to lift a mask mandate.
"We are currently seeing a sustained reduction in statistics regarding the positivity rate and hospitalizations, which presents us with a better picture," Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said last week in a statement. "Even so, it is not yet time to let our guard down; we have to continue protecting ourselves against this virus and maintain the necessary precautionary measures."
California recently lifted its mandate, initiated in mid-December to blunt the impact of the Omicron variant, but left the option of stricter rules to local health departments. In Los Angeles County, residents can soon go maskless so long as they show proof of vaccination at indoor venues.
It looks as though the new rules will let "vaccinated people take off their masks indoors at places that check for proof of vaccination," LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn tweeted on Tuesday. "This puts us significantly closer to aligning with the state," she added.
LA County is rare in California in still requiring people to don masks in indoor public settings, regardless of whether they've been vaccinated. And even as states relax the rules on facial coverings, unvaccinated people are still required to wear them in some indoor settings and places like nursing homes, public transportation and some schools.
The LA Unified School District on Tuesday dropped its outdoor mask requirements at all of the district's campuses, but not all children followed suit, as many could be seen wearing masks outside.
"I think everyone got used to the masks," student Andrez Mendoza told a local CBS affiliate. "During PE, which I just had, the teacher said we could remove our masks, and no one did."
That reluctance to unmask is seemingly shared by a significant number of New Yorkers, at least when contemplating indoor spaces. Nearly two weeks after Gov. Kathy Hochul let the state's indoor mask mandate expire, a survey found that many state residents thought Hochul should have continued the requirement.
"There is no clear consensus on mandating masks in indoor public spaces," Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said in statement regarding the survey results. "Still, a plurality of voters, 45%, say the indoor mask mandate should remain in place."
CDC stands pat — for now
The federal government is also keeping mask regulations in place. The Transportation Security Administration is expected to extend in-flight and airport mask requirements now slated to lapse on March 18, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, told Bloomberg News.
Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signaled last week that it might soon ease its mask guidance and look to hospitalizations as to whether masks are necessary. As things stand, CDC guidance recommends people wear masks inside in areas with substantial or high transmission, which currently encompasses nearly the entire country.
"As we consider future metrics, which will be updated soon, we recognize the importance of not just cases — which continue to result in substantial or high community transmission in over 97% of our counties in the country — but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing at the White House last week. "We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer."
"We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when this metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen," the physician added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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