Customers with face masks at the supermarket. Many people still wear them even if not mandated. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

How businesses are handling mask guidelines at this point in the pandemic

Janet Nguyen Jun 23, 2021
Customers with face masks at the supermarket. Many people still wear them even if not mandated. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

After more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, businesses have been relaxing their masking guidelines. 

As an increasing number of Americans are vaccinated, most states are following guidance from both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to John Ho, a labor and employment attorney at the law firm Cozen O’Connor.  

If you’ve been fully vaccinated, the CDC said, you can resume most activities without wearing a mask unless required by law. 

But masks are still required “on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States.” And the agency advised that vaccinated people should continue wearing them in correctional facilities and homeless shelters. 

Many states that have reopened, including Arizona and Massachusetts, don’t require masks, with the exception of certain locations — like public transit. Meanwhile, states such as Connecticut are recommending masks indoors for those who are unvaccinated, and Hawaii is asking everyone to wear masks indoors. 

OSHA recently released new masking guidelines for certain states and industries. 

In the health care field, OSHA is requiring employers to provide employees with protective equipment like masks and give them enough time to receive vaccinations, among other measures. In California, Cal/OSHA recently announced guidelines that allow fully vaccinated workers to take masks off while doing their jobs. 

“The question that more and more employers are going to struggle with is: Well, how do you determine who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated?” Ho said. “I think that’s really where the rubber hits the road, so to speak.” 

Ho noted that employers essentially have several options. They can require proof of vaccination, operate on an honor system or take the middle road, where they’ll only ask for proof during situations like an outbreak at a facility. 

He said that most businesses he’s seeing are using the honor system — they’re not asking people about vaccinations and trusting them instead.

Sharona Hoffman, law professor at Case Western Reserve University, said that anecdotally, very few people are wearing masks at the businesses and restaurants she’s patronized. 

“There’s not an easy way to verify if someone is vaccinated. Employers hesitate to ask people to show them their cards,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of enforcement.”

Another issue that businesses are concerned with, Hoffman said, is the possibility that people who do choose to wear masks may be harassed. 

“I have seen signs on doors saying, ‘Please be courteous to people who choose to wear a mask. It’s now voluntary,’” Hoffman said. 

Ho said the rules businesses have will depend on the setting. Higher-risk industries — like meat-processing plants, retail shops and grocery stores — may keep mask mandates in place. Ho added that this is in contrast to most corporate settings, where workers can social distance and those rules are being dropped. 

If the infection numbers continue to improve, Ho said, he thinks businesses will continue to move away from the restrictions they have in place. 

Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who’s an expert on airborne virus transmission, said it might make sense to have a patchwork of rules concerning masks. 

“There are places where there’s high vaccination rates and low incidence. And I think it’s fine for people to be without masks there,” Marr said. “But there are still areas where vaccination rates are low. And we’re still seeing cases, and people are still dying. And so in those situations, it makes sense to require masks.” 

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