The CDC’s new guidance that fully vaccinated Americans can go maskless and not social distance is undoubtedly good news for vaccinated people (exceptions are at health, long-term care, congregate, and public transportation facilities or while on public transportation). However, it presents a problem for all location-based consumer businesses and may very well increase the spread of the virus.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s mission, according to their website, includes “stopping the spread of contagions and vector-borne diseases.” During the pandemic, they strongly advised Americans to wear masks and social distance to prevent infecting other people, since people can be asymptomatically infected, and for people to protect themselves from the airborne virus by wearing a mask.
Now they’ve divided the country into behaviors for three groups of people; the fully vaccinated, those partially vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated, and those refusing to get vaccinated, including the anti-maskers. The CDC’s premise behind the new guidance appears to be that it will give hesitant people an incentive to get vaccinated. They assume that people will follow the honor system with all unvaccinated and not fully vaccinated people always wearing a mask in public and at social gatherings. The CDC says their new guidance follows the science, which it does for fully vaccinated people. However, they forgot to follow the science of human behavior in assuming everyone will follow the honor system. As a result, they may very well be creating a situation where the spread of the coronavirus will increase, totally contrary to their public health mission.
Many Americans over the past year have already shown by their behavior that they reject mask-wearing and social distancing, essentially continuing their normal life like in the past. There has been widespread publicity of incidents with customers refusing to wear masks in businesses where masks are mandated. On the airlines, who make their mask mandate crystal clear even before booking the flight, people still refuse to wear a mask. Delta Airlines has put about 1,200 passengers who refused to wear a mask on its no-fly list, Frontier Airlines more than 830, United about 750, Alaska Airlines 542, just to give a few examples of the problem.
Based on multiple polls, all of which show very consistent results, about one in five adults, 20%, say they do not plan to get vaccinated. Data from the May 1-4 Economist/YouGov poll shows that Americans who reject the vaccine are even more likely than vaccinated Americans to think it is safe for them and other unvaccinated adults to socialize without a mask. The poll found that 63% of vaccine-refusers, about one in eight adults, say it is safe for them to socialize indoors with unvaccinated people without wearing a mask. That compares with only 19% of people who have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine. The disparity is similar to being on a plane maskless. 59% of vaccine refusers consider it safe compared to only 23% of the vaccinated.
When vaccinated people were asked how safe it would be for fully vaccinated people to socialize indoors with unvaccinated people without wearing a mask, only 20% said it would be completely safe, and 20% said somewhat safe (total 40% safe). There was a marked difference between Democrats, with only 28% rating it safe, compared to twice as many Republicans (56%).
Unvaccinated people are less apt to take safety precautions and to view social activities as risky. The May 7-10 Axios-Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of unvaccinated Americans (46%) report wearing a mask at all times when leaving the house compared to 65% of vaccinated people. The AP-NORC April 29-May 3 poll found that only 61% of unvaccinated report wearing a face mask when they’re around other people outside their home compared with 88% of the vaccinated.
These poll results appear to negate any argument that the greater personal freedom for vaccinated people going maskless will incentivize those who reject the vaccine to receive a shot. They already consider themselves safe without a mask. Instead, the vaccine-refusers and even some of the other unvaccinated people will feel they now have a license to throw away the masks they always disliked.
For businesses to continue mandating masks has become impossible. Not only do we have the mask-refusers fighting it, now we will have some of the fully vaccinated considering it unnecessary. Without mask mandates and without any vaccine passport system, it is apparent what will happen. The unvaccinated Covid-deniers and vaccine-refusers won’t even have to lie to take off their masks. The roughly one in eight of all adults who are vaccine-refusers and consider it safe for them to be socializing indoors maskless will just stop wearing masks. These are also the people more likely to engage in riskier activities, such as going to a crowded bar or nightclub, in large part because they don’t consider the virus a threat. We’ll also have a percentage of fully vaccinated people going maskless. So many maskless people out in public will soon send the message that the pandemic is behind us, so more unvaccinated and vaccinated people will unmask. Seeing enough unmasked people signals a strong social norm that masklessness is the socially correct thing to do.
Seeing large numbers of maskless people is likely to reduce many peoples’ comfort visiting location-based leisure venues, especially indoor ones. In my April 29th blog, I discussed how it is essential to make people feel as safe and comfortable as possible to get them to return. Survey results show that mandatory masking is necessary to accomplish that. Mandatory face coverings were the top-rated feature that would make people comfortable and motivate them to visit. Now it seems that maintaining such a policy is next to impossible since most states and so many retailers, including Walmart, Costco, and Starbucks have dropped their mask requirement for vaccinated customers. With all the publicity about mask-refusers, people will assume that many maskless customers at any business are unvaccinated and a potential threat to their health.
Now, those customers who might have come when there was a mandatory mask requirement will stay away. These include many potential unvaccinated as well as vaccinated customers. The May 6-9 Morning Consult poll found that even for adults who have received a vaccine, less than one-third said they would be comfortable going to different public activities (attending a concert – 23%, visiting an amusement park – 30%, going to the movies – 33%). Only a little over one-half were comfortable dining at a restaurant (56%). That poll was taken when most businesses had a mandatory mask requirement in place, which added to the perceived safety. The CDC’s new mask guidance may very well slow the economic recovery for all types of location-based consumer businesses, as no longer having mandatory mask requirements will dissuade more people from coming.
Here’s where it gets scary. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. The virus is still killing at the rate of nearly 200,000 people a year in the U.S. With so many more people unprotected and with variants that are more contagious and better at evading the immune system, the infection rate may go up with more unmasked people, especially the unvaccinated mask-refusers. It only takes one unmasked, asymptomatically infected person in a crowded venue, such as a bar or nightclub, or a small room with an extended stay, such as an escape room or birthday party room, to create a super spreader event.
A more maskless public can also change the risk for the fully vaccinated. The real-world efficacy of the mRNA vaccines was found to be 90% or more. But those studies were done in an environment where we had widespread masking. With less masking, more airborne virus aerosols, and contagious variants, the efficacy of the vaccines may very well drop. And although the research shows the vaccines are 100% effective in preventing death, the vaccines don’t necessarily protect people who get a breakthrough infection and then long-haul Covid. A recent study of 236,000 Covid-19 patients published in Lancet Psychiatry reports that one in three (34%) had been diagnosed with a neurological or mental health disorder within six months following their survival.
Yes, the CDC, in their new short-sighted guidance, may very well have prolonged the pandemic and its toll on Americans as well as slowed the economic recovery for many location-based businesses, including entertainment and cultural ones.
Additional reading: New CDC guidelines for the vaccinated leave restaurants with a dilemma
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