Even after 14 months of digesting an avalanche of confusing, maddening and ever-changing data and guidelines from public heath officials, the past few days have been especially whiplash-inducing for Californians.

On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance saying that available evidence demonstrated it was safe for fully vaccinated people to go without masks in most places, whether outdoors or inside. The move was, the CDC said, in recognition of the latest scientific data. But it was also part of an effort to spur vaccination holdouts to reconsider their decision to not get the vaccine – a carrot, if you will, to avoid having to wear a mask in some situations.

Confusion reigned. That was especially true for states, counties and cities. As University of North Carolina Associate Professor Zeynep Tufekci wrote, “Telling everyone to wear masks indoors has a sociological effect. Grocery stores and workplaces cannot enforce mask wearing by vaccination status. We do not have vaccine passports in the U.S. Places can either say ‘wear a mask regardless’ or just accept that people who don’t want to wear one will not.”

And there’s also the issue of whether people feel comfortable trusting other’s contention that they got the vaccine. “It’s a very complicated symphony right now,” Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan who is an expert on pandemics, told the New York Times. “There’s been such an erosion of trust, distrust for government, distrust for the virus, distrust for this party or that party. So when you tell the public what to do, there are people who say, ‘How can I trust the guy without the mask?’”

On Monday, the as the Marin IJ reported, state officials clarified things, noting that the CDC simply issued a recommendation and that the final call was largely left to state and local governments. Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services secretary, said state officials were opting to wait until June 15 before implementing the new guidelines to give residents more time to receive their vaccine shots and businesses and workers time to prepare for the change.

“This was the right call,” Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis told the IJ. “Even in Marin with our high vaccination rates it seemed too early to relax regulations for indoor facial coverings. It just feels premature to lift the facial covering requirement when with every day that passes we have 1 or 2 more percent of our population reaching full immunity.”

Here is a statement from the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce:

Willis told the IJ that the risk of demasking too soon was that people who haven’t been vaccinated or haven’t achieved full immunity would stop wearing masks indoors and would infect others who haven’t been vaccinated or immunized. He noted that while Marin has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state among counties, only 54% of the population is fully immunized.

Willis said he also agrees with the decision to delay complying with CDC’s recommendation until June 15 specifically.

“There is an elegance to that strategy,” he said, “That date had already been flagged as going beyond the blueprint so other regulations will be lifted at that point. One month from now we’ll be in a much better place with regards to our immunity across the state.”​​

While many found that clarity helpful, it remains unclear how state, county and local officials will ensure unvaccinated individuals keep their masks on, though. And enforcement is another open question, as many law enforcement agencies have favored a more educational approach.

California’s existing rules, last updated May 3, generally require masks to be worn in indoor settings that are outside one’s home, with exceptions, such as when it’s a nonworkplace setting and everyone there is vaccinated, or when only members of one unvaccinated household are present and all have a low risk of severe complications should they get COVID-19.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their final dose.

Unvaccinated people must also wear masks outdoors at any time they can’t maintain six feet of distance from others, and fully vaccinated people need to wear masks in crowded outdoor settings, such as live performances, parades, fairs, festivals and sports events.

Monday’s announcement, however, doesn’t mean June 15 will mark the end of all masking. Under federal guidance, unvaccinated or partly vaccinated people are still asked to wear masks in almost all indoor settings and at most outdoor venues when interacting with people from outside their household who may not be vaccinated.

Following the CDC’s announcement, some retailers — including Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Costco — said they would no longer require fully vaccinated shoppers to don masks. “We expect businesses in California to adhere to where the state is and move to implement these standards, or prepare for them, on June 15 as opposed to now,” Ghaly said.

Though California has made significant strides in terms of vaccinations, only about half of Californians have received at least one dose to this point — meaning much of the populace is not yet fully vaccinated. Children under 12 are also still not eligible for any shots.

California’s strict mask rules have long been a hallmark of the state’s pandemic response, with officials noting that properly worn masks can stymie transmission of the coronavirus. However, the thinking around COVID-19 has evolved throughout the pandemic.

“The science now shows that your vaccination protects you as well as being masked or better than being masked,” President Biden said during a briefing Monday. “So you can protect yourself from serious illness from COVID by getting vaccinated or wearing a mask until you’re fully vaccinated. Either way, you’re protected.”

Do you have questions about specific situations in which it’s unclear if you should wear a mask?
These experts have some answers.

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