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Mask mandate over for vaccinated in Michigan. Confusion for everyone else?

man removing mask
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hailed the end of a mask mandate for the fully vaccinated a victory for science. The decision comes one day after similar guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Shutterstock)

June 22: Michigan drops COVID-19 safety restrictions in most workplaces
June 21: Michigan’s mask and capacity restrictions end Tuesday. What you need to know.
May 24: Michigan mask rule change: Many questions. Some answers. What to know.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Friday dropped Michigan’s mask mandate for fully vaccinated people, easing a restriction that could have remained well into summer but creating a host of questions in the process.

The order, which takes effect Saturday at 9 a.m., came one day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance saying fully vaccinated people could safely go indoors without masks.

That made mask mandates nationwide almost impossible to enforce, and many states have already dropped them since the CDC announcement.

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Health officials declared Whitmer’s order a milestone in the COVID-19 fight. Nearly 18,500 people have died in Michigan from the virus since March 2020.

“The vast majority of us have trusted the scientists and experts to keep us safe during the pandemic, and it has worked,” Whitmer said in a statement released Friday morning. 

“With millions of Michiganders fully vaccinated, we can now safely and confidently take the next step to get back to normal.”

The implementation of the new rules could be difficult: Whitmer said those who are not vaccinated or have not completed their vaccinations “must continue to wear a mask or face covering to protect themselves and others. After July 1, the broad indoor mask mandate will expire.”

But there is no way for businesses or employers to know who is and who isn’t vaccinated. There are no “vaccine passports” in Michigan, nor are they likely — the Republican-controlled Legislature is adamantly opposed to them.

 

“We’re still wondering how is a retailer is supposed to police this in their stores?” said Jennifer Rook, a spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association. 

Businesses largely welcomed the news, but the new order could put staffers in a precarious position if they are expected to verify who is vaccinated, said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.

"If someone doesn't have verification, are they supposed to be denied the ability to not wear a mask? We don't have an infrastructure in place to deal with this yet," he said. 

"I do have genuine concern you put some people — especially (the restaurant) industry that skews a little younger than most — in harm's way of a frustrated public."

That could mean confusion may persist until July 1, when the broader mask mandate ends. Rook and other business groups were eagerly waiting to see more specifics from the Whitmer administration.

Unless the pace of vaccinations dramatically increases, the state’s inoculation rate will still be well short of the 70 percent goal Whitmer had set to lift all remaining restrictions. 

The state continues to limit capacity at restaurants, movie theaters and indoor stadiums, among other things. And a plan to re-open office spaces will not be official until May 24.

So far, 55.6 percent of state adults are vaccinated, and a team of University of Michigan researchers predicted the state wouldn’t hit 70 percent until Aug. 1 if the current pace continues.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said Whitmer should drop all remaining restrictions and allow “everyone to get back to work and return to their normal lives.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the order is "long overdue" and poses questions about the science behind Whitmer's earlier pandemic orders.

"We haven’t seen any detail about this new order beyond Gov. Whitmer’s feel-good statement, but I hope she will opt to trust people rather than issue a confusing enforcement mandate on law enforcement, business owners, or others to pry into citizens’ private medical decisions," he said in a statement.

Step toward normal

Michigan has had a mandatory mask mandate since the early days of the pandemic, requiring people to wear masks when in public spaces indoors and businesses were expected to comply. People eating or drinking at restaurants and bars could remove their masks.

Medical experts hope the CDC’s new guidance will encourage more residents to get vaccinated.

 “It’s critical that eligible Michigan residents who have not yet been vaccinated schedule their appointments as soon as they can,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical officer, said in a statement.

In making the change, Whitmer radically altered her two-week-old “Vacc to Normal” plan that linked vaccinations to the easing of restrictions.

State health director Elizabeth Hertel said vaccinations allowed Michigan to "take a big step in returning to normal." 

‘Light at end of the tunnel’

The new CDC guidance shows the national vaccination effort has been successful so far and could encourage other residents to seek inoculation, said Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease specialist with Wayne Health and Wayne State University. 

"We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," said Chopra, who works in Detroit. "I see a lot of hesitancy here, and I hope this will incentivize Detroiters to get vaccinated."

However, Chopra noted the CDC continues to recommend universal mask use in all health care settings, meaning vaccinated residents should wear masks when visiting a doctor or hospital where "exposures can happen very quickly."

And residents who live in areas with high transmission rates and low vaccination rates should also remain cautious, Chopra said. 

"We have to tell our community that they should keep masking in those settings, like Detroit," she said. 

Michigan still has the highest daily COVID case rate in the country, and it will be difficult to distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated in large crowds, Chopra noted. 

Her advice for the fully vaccinated: "If they are going to meet a friend who was vaccinated, they may take their masks off, but if they are in a crowded place and are going to be among a crowd, even if they are outdoors, I think they should still be masking,” Chopra said.

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association was "flooded with calls" on Thursday after the CDC guidance was released, "with a lot of restaurants confused on what they should do, because customers had already turned the corner," Winslow said. 

"(Customers) thought this automatically applied to them and were starting to act accordingly," he said. "There's a lot of pent up demand still for restaurants, and those who now feel they can go without being encumbered seem to have driven a lot more of them in last night, which is a good sign for the industry."

Winslow did not blame Whitmer for the confusion, noting the CDC guidance surprised a lot of people. 

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