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As guidelines change, the question of whether to mask becomes more personal

The CDC said Thursday that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in outdoor and indoor settings.
Lauren Bergold, 36, of Tampa, chats with hazel + dot owner, Allison Bernardi, while shopping for her new baby. Bergold felt comfortable with shopping unmasked at Bernardi’s store where going unmasked recently became okay due to the CDC guidelines changing for fully vaccinated people. A sign on the store’s door asks that unvaccinated people please wear a mask. “I wanted to give it a try here,” said Bergold about going maskless at Hazel + Dot, adding that going without a mask still feels “Vulnerable, a little uncomfortable.” Friday, May 14, 2021 in Tampa.
Lauren Bergold, 36, of Tampa, chats with hazel + dot owner, Allison Bernardi, while shopping for her new baby. Bergold felt comfortable with shopping unmasked at Bernardi’s store where going unmasked recently became okay due to the CDC guidelines changing for fully vaccinated people. A sign on the store’s door asks that unvaccinated people please wear a mask. “I wanted to give it a try here,” said Bergold about going maskless at Hazel + Dot, adding that going without a mask still feels “Vulnerable, a little uncomfortable.” Friday, May 14, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 15
Updated May 18

Shiv Shukla thinks it’s better to err on the side of caution.

The 21-year-old University of South Florida student is fully vaccinated from the coronavirus, but he plans to continue wearing masks indoors in public spaces for the time being — despite new federal guidance saying he doesn’t need to.

He knows the majority of Floridians are not fully vaccinated. And while he trusts the data about the effectiveness of the vaccines, he wants to be sure he’s doing his part not to spread the virus.

Thursday’s abrupt announcement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people could go without masks outdoors and in most indoor settings was met with fanfare but also confusion and questions.

Experts said the update gives guidance to people wondering about post-pandemic life, but also noted that, at this stage of the pandemic, decisions about masking and social distancing are increasingly going to come down to individuals’ determination of risk.

“If (people are) fully vaccinated, I’d say, do what you feel comfortable with,” said Michael Teng, an immunologist at the University of South Florida.

The guidance included caveats that vaccinated people should still wear masks in certain situations, such as while taking public transit or visiting health care facilities. The CDC’s director said people with weak immune systems should talk with their doctors before opting to get rid of their masks.

Related: Fully vaccinated people can largely ditch masks indoors, CDC says

Teng said he thinks the CDC probably offered the right guidance based on the science, although he said communication about the reasons behind the changes could have been clearer. He noted that coronavirus case numbers are going down, and it appears the vaccines are “extremely effective” in blocking moderate to severe illness from the virus and that people who are fully vaccinated don’t transmit the virus much.

Teng said he expects it to be a “process” for people, including himself, to feel safe with the idea of unmasking in public places, particularly indoors.

Florida has already largely done away with mask mandates and other coronavirus safety restrictions, with Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this month issuing an executive order suspending cities’ and counties’ pandemic-related restrictions.

Related: DeSantis signs bill banning vaccine ‘passports,’ suspends local pandemic restrictions

That leaves businesses and individuals to decide for themselves what to do.

Allison Bernardi, owner of the hazel + dot retail shop in Tampa, said she kept up a mask requirement at her store even after a local mask mandate went away, choosing to wait until the CDC guidance no longer recommended masks.

After Thursday’s announcement, she posted a sign on her front door asking unvaccinated people to wear masks but saying that those who are fully vaccinated – including her staff – could opt for bare faces.

She said her staff will don masks if it makes a customer feel safer and she is keeping up a clear divider in front of the cash register as a precaution.

Shopper Lauren Bergold, 36, of Tampa, said she felt “vulnerable, a little uncomfortable” going maskless in Bernardi’s store on Friday but she wanted to give it a try because she knows and trusts Bernardi. Bergold said she’ll likely continue to wear a mask to the grocery store and other public places.

Dr. Kami Kim, an infectious disease physician at Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida, said earlier this month that she still gets many of the same questions now that she got early in the pandemic: What is and isn’t safe?

Part of the confusion, she said, is due to changing and sometimes conflicting guidance on mask-wearing, social distancing and other measures from governments throughout the pandemic.

“It’s hard to know what to tell people,” Kim said. She said scientific understanding of the virus and the vaccines is still growing so public health experts are “evolving what our message is.”

She said Florida is still in a transitional state, where it’s hard to know whether the unmasked person next to you is vaccinated or not. But she added that “we also can’t stay locked up in our houses because that’s unlivable.” The result, she said, is that every person will have to decide based on their own circumstances what they feel comfortable doing.

Robert Trahey, 65, visited Gulfport from Michigan on Friday and said that while he feels comfortable baring his smile with family and vaccinated friends, he’s still masking up around strangers despite having had both his COVID-19 shots.

His plan for now is to “just steer clear” of others not wearing masks indoors.

Adria Curioso, 27, said she’s not clear why the CDC made this update to its guidance now, with most Americans not fully vaccinated.

The Temple Terrace resident is fully vaccinated but says she’s still wary when she sees people out and about without masks. She doesn’t want to make others uncomfortable by thinking she is anti-mask, which is one reason she’ll continue wearing a face covering for now.

“I want to clearly communicate that I believe in the pandemic,” Curioso said.

Diane Herrig, 64, of Bradenton, said she thought the CDC’s updated guidelines were a “great reprieve” for vaccinated people to be able to let their guard down. But she said she still feels safer wearing a mask despite being fully vaccinated.

Herrig said she has Parkinson’s disease and said even a mild case would be difficult for her health. She doesn’t trust some of the anti-mask, anti-vaccine rhetoric she’s seen in the state, and with the numbers of people still unvaccinated.

“In a month, ask me again if I feel comfortable letting my guard down,” she said.

Tampa Bay Times photographer Martha Ascencio-Rhine and staff writer Bailey LeFever contributed to this report.

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