Masks come off in blue states. Residents wonder: Is it too soon, or long overdue?

At Janssen’s Market, in Wilmington, Del., customers and employees are adapting to a new phase of the pandemic. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)
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WILMINGTON, Del. — At Janssen’s Market, the baked goods were fresh, the Godiva chocolate was on display, and the masks were gone — at least on some of the customers.

Delaware’s Democratic governor, like a growing roster of his compatriots in other blue states, raced this month to lift an indoor mask mandate as the omicron surge fizzled, even if the administration of Delaware’s favorite son, Joe Biden, continued to urge that masks be worn in public.

The mask era appears to be on the decline as the coronavirus pandemic lurches into a third year, another turning point on the circuitous path to normalcy.

It’s about time, said Keith Bosley, who strolled through the high-end market sans mask. He’d been skeptical about the value of mask mandates, believing they harm children’s development and are ineffective when most people wear cloth masks instead of high-quality masks.

“I follow the mandates. I didn’t agree with them, but I followed them and tried to be a good citizen,” said Bosley, who is 66, boosted, tested regularly for his senior-care job and keeps a mask in his pocket if a business requires them. “It’s a choice right now, which is probably what it should have been.”

Leslie Pellegrino worried about the medically vulnerable as she walked out of the market wearing a surgical mask, like most Janssen’s customers on a recent weekday.

“My mom is 86, and I feel like we need a little bit more time,” Pellegrino said. “Until we get to smooth sailing, I won’t stop worrying.”

The abrupt end of mask requirements in blue states, which had left mandates in place longer than most Republican-led regions, signals a new reality in which leaders in the most cautious parts of the country say the time has arrived to live with the novel coronavirus — minus sweeping mandates.

The face coverings that are the most visible reminder of the pandemic in American’s daily lives are coming off rapidly in public places, from the casinos of the Las Vegas Strip to houses of worship and yoga studios.

Some people say it’s long overdue and time to trust vaccines as the best shield. Others worry that political pressure to return to normal is endangering the immunocompromised, elderly and young children not yet eligible for vaccines. Many are unsure when they will ever feel comfortable again in a maskless world, their hopes dashed before by new variants.

An abrupt end to mask mandates reflects a changing political landscape

Most Republican governors abandoned mask mandates after the first year of the pandemic, declining to reinstate them during new surges. Some have pointed to explosive omicron outbreaks in areas with mask mandates as evidence the mandates didn’t work. Democratic governors say the mandates helped prevent the surges from getting even worse.

While it’s harder to dodge the virus in public and private gatherings when it’s widespread in a community, research shows masks remain an effective prevention strategy.

A study assessing the effectiveness of masks in California last year found that people who reported always wearing a cloth mask in indoor public places were 56 percent less likely to test positive for the virus compared with people who didn’t wear masks — an advantage that increased to 66 percent for people wearing surgical masks and 83 percent for people donning the highest-quality KN95 and N95 masks.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a mask mandate at a 53,000-person anime convention in New York as among the reasons the gathering did not turn into an omicron superspreader event in late November.

But public health authorities in blue states are starting to abandon mask mandates as the omicron threat subsides, even as they allow businesses and localities to keep them in place and encourage the vulnerable to still mask up. They are jumping ahead of the CDC, which still recommends masking in areas with high transmission, a category that continues to apply to large swaths of the country where, even though infection counts are declining from all-time highs, large numbers of positive cases are reported daily.

States that have recently announced plans to roll back mask rules include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington. The District has also announced such a plan. Hawaii is the only state that has not ditched a statewide indoor mask mandate.

In some of these states, governors and public health authorities say that once mandates are relaxed this time, it will be harder to reimpose them: Nearly everyone is eligible for vaccines, treatments are more available, and widespread exhaustion has settled in as the nation enters the third year of the pandemic.

‘Having a good time’

The abrupt end of Nevada’s mask mandate in time for Super Bowl weekend was welcome news to gamblers pouring into Las Vegas sportsbooks, to Vegas regulars craving freedom from pandemic life and to business owners who said masks cramped the party spirit on the Strip.

In May 2021, Las Vegas started a return to normal with big conventions resuming

Maskless fans sang along and yelled at country singer Luke Bryan’s opening show at Resorts World Las Vegas after he declared the mandate’s end meant fans “can drink beer and party in Vegas like we’re supposed to.” Officials credit the mandate’s end for a spike in tourism, including at Circa Resort & Casino, where reservations surged.

John Kitchen, 47, of Lexington, Ky., returned to the city he normally visits four or five times a year for the first time since the pandemic started. He wears a mask all day in his job as a regional manager for a medical device manufacturer and wants Las Vegas to be his escape.

“Vegas is about seeing people, enjoying people and having a good time,” Kitchen said as he waited to swim in Circa’s rooftop pool on a sunny day in February. “It’s a social world we all live in, and the mask mandate has had a negative influence on that.”

Craig Van Hoesen, a Circa bartender, said his hearing loss made orders harder to understand with a mask mandate.

“It was difficult to have conversations with people when you both have a mask on and there is loud music,” Van Hoesen, 40, said. “I’m glad we’re back to normal.”

Keeping the faith

Far from Las Vegas, clergy and parishioners at Albany, N.Y., churches embraced the opportunity to worship and sing with their mouths uncovered for the first Sunday services since New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) ended the statewide indoor mask mandate.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in suburban Albany saw attendance at weekend Masses surge after the Roman Catholic diocese allowed churches to drop mask mandates. At the 9:30 a.m. Mass, fewer than half of the roughly 250 churchgoers still covered their faces.

The Rev. Bob Longobucco spent months struggling to discern parishioners’ reactions to his homilies with their faces covered. Their voices were muffled as they sang hymns and recited the Nicene Creed.

During the first mask-optional Mass in months, he said he could see his words register as he implored his congregation to think of themselves as not better or separate from the less fortunate and as he cheered on the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.

Mass wasn’t completely normal. Parishioners continued to space themselves apart in the pews. The choir, which once performed with elongated masks and musicians spaced far apart, had not returned after going on hiatus during the omicron surge.

“Today, I could see the faces,” Peter Aviles, a cantor at the church, said. Now, he is eager to call back the choir. “I want to hear the gorgeous sounds.”

Sixteen miles away at the Black Catholic Apostolate church in Menands, just outside Albany, leaders opted to keep the mask mandate in place out of concern for elderly parishioners and young children ineligible for vaccines. But the mask requirement left them comfortable allowing masked choir members to sing from their seats and surrounding the priest.

After Mass, some worshipers said they were far less afraid of the coronavirus now that numbers were dropping. But the conflicting messages from the federal and state governments left them uneasy.

“There are too many pilots flying the plane,” said George King, 76, a longtime parishioner and retired lawyer.

His sister, Jacquie King, is looking to the CDC for permission to doff her mask instead of relying on the governor.

“When you read the Bible, it talks about civilizations wiped out by catastrophes,” Jacquie King said. “And here we’re looking at a deadly virus and rather than using our heads to do the right thing, people are just saying they’re tired of it.”

‘No mask, no entry’

Empowered by Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) to drop the mask mandate she has had in place for two years, Karen Igou still wasn’t ready to welcome unmasked customers at Honeybee Kitchen and Market, a small organic food store in Wilmington, on a recent weekday.

The state’s largest hospitals had declared crisis standards of care that allowed them to ration services a month earlier as they faced a historic surge of omicron patients. When Igou pulled out her phone to look at the state’s covid data dashboard, two hospitals in her county reported more than 90 percent of beds in use, and another was well over its ICU capacity, in the first week of February. Maybe she would feel comfortable when hospitals no longer faced a crunch and the rate of positive tests fell below 5 percent.

But like many small business owners during the pandemic, Igou has struggled to keep her doors open. She has had a few customers storm out or insult her when reminded of the mask mandate, but others felt more comfortable shopping at her store knowing patrons would be masked.

“I’m so sick of wearing these damn masks. I’m extremely sick of them, but also, it’s a mask. People in other countries wear masks all the time,” even before the pandemic, said Igou, wearing a red KN95 mask behind the counter. “If it’s going to help the teachers and health-care workers, I’m going to wear them forever because they’ve been through hell.”

One older customer holding a Coach bag in one hand and a blue surgical mask in the other, stared at the sign on the door, puzzled, before stepping in. The sign declared, “No mask, no entry, no exceptions.”

“You still requiring masks?” she asked.

“If you don’t mind, that would be great,” Igou replied.

“Because now they lifted the mandate,” the woman added.

“Thank you, but we’re still requiring it here,” Igou said.

The woman, who declined to give her name, shrugged and donned her mask as Igou showed off a selection of prepared tofu meals in the fridge.

Jennifer French, 52, already had her mask on when she entered the store minutes later because she works with immunocompromised children. But two years into the pandemic, she’s unsure if she can trust the rest of society to do the right thing without mandates. She said she contracted the virus in December after going to a friend’s house for coffee, assured everyone was vaccinated. It turned out not everyone was.

“If everyone was responsible or still maintaining healthy distance, maybe I’d be fine,” French said, referring to the Delaware governor’s lifting of the mask mandate. “But there’s so many careless people who think it’s not a real issue.”

‘It’s going to be weird’

The United States has been in a similar moment before: Last year, states abandoned social distancing measures in time for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. When new variants later surged, few states brought back capacity limits at restaurants and event spaces, relying on mask and vaccine mandates to keep society open. But it appears mask mandates could be a thing of the past in the pandemic’s third year.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced last week a strategy for treating the coronavirus as endemic that would emphasize testing and vaccination to respond to new surges instead of far-reaching mandates. Some residents expressed skepticism that the time for the shift had arrived.

As Jacob Battersby dropped off his second-grader at an Alameda County elementary school — where a statewide mask mandate remained in place — he pondered why California would drop the mandate in other public places when the state was turning a corner from the latest surge.

“To me, it feels like if we’re doing a little bit better at beating back the numbers, then we should continue with what we’re doing until they get really low,” Battersby said.

The 46-year-old event producer and artist is looking for low case numbers and guidance from the CDC to feel comfortable taking his mask off, uneasy after a friend struggled to taste and smell a month after getting infected and after a relative endured a fever and headaches for a week. Even when that time arrives, going maskless will feel jarring.

“It’s going to be weird,” Battersby said.

Jessica Duggan, a 38-year-old attorney who dropped off her two children at the same school while holding a mat for an outdoor exercise class at a nearby park, also felt conflicted. Her kids are used to wearing masks. She doesn’t want to be one of the few maskless people at establishments out of respect to those trying to protect themselves.

“I do think we’re getting close to a place where we won’t be wearing masks anymore,” Duggan said, “especially since it feels like we’re moving in the right direction right now.”

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