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Mask confusion: How Michigan navigated a weekend of new COVID orders

Collin Granke at K.C. Bonkers Toys and Coffee in the Upper Peninsula
At K.C. Bonkers Toys and Coffee in the Upper Peninsula, all customers Saturday were asked by the store’s door sign to wear masks. Even after the rule changed Monday, most still wore masks, said manager Collin Granke. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

May 20: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: All COVID restrictions to end in Michigan on July 1

HANCOCK—The shelves were full of puzzles, games, gag gifts and mind tricks, but the confusion at K.C. Bonkers Toys and Coffee centered on something a lot less whimsical.

Mask rules.

Dr. Krista Frick, a local audiologist grabbing a morning latte, was quizzing K.C. manager Collin Granke on Saturday, trying to understand what to advise patrons about mask wearing and “what’s the right thing to do here.”

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“We’re definitely in this weird place,” Frick told Bridge later. “It’s not just ‘What is best for customers and staff?’ It’s ‘What is the law?’”

Such confusion was shared throughout the weekend in stores, offices and restaurants across the state.

At midday Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance that vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear face coverings or socially distance in most situations, even when indoors. While welcome relief for many, it caught public health workers, office managers, store owners and others off-guard.

Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had dangled a mask-free promise to the state just two weeks earlier, but with the expectation that this would not happen for weeks or even months from now. In the governor’s Vacc to Normal plan, Michigan would lift its mask requirements only after 70 percent of all Michiganders 16 and older had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine for at least two weeks.

But after the CDC announcement, the Whitmer administration was left scrambling to catch up. 

It wasn’t until late Friday that Michigan clarified state mandates with an update, aligning its rule with the CDC guidance and requiring businesses to make a “good faith effort” to ensure unvaccinated employees, visitors and customers continue to wear masks indoors (such as by posting a sign laying out state requirements). The update took effect at 9 a.m. Saturday.

But there’s no way for businesses or employers to know who is and who isn’t vaccinated other than taking a person’s word for it. There are no “vaccine passports” required in Michigan, nor are they likely — the GOP-controlled Legislature is adamantly opposed to them.

Meanwhile, some health leaders, including the Michigan Nurses Association, decried the CDC guidance, saying the agency “acted hastily and prematurely to massively erode what we know to be measures that protect health care workers and our communities.” 

 

Others, however, weren’t as convinced this was rushed.

“It was overdue,” said Dr. Mustafa “Mark” Hamed, an emergency room physician and president of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians.

Vaccines have begun driving down case rates, and the coming warm weather will further compress rates, he said. Lifting restrictions for the fully vaccinated is a well-timed “carrot” rather than a “stick,” nudging others toward a vaccination, he said.

“You’re giving people incentives” to get the vaccine, Hamed said, and “putting the trust factor in there; trusting people to do the right thing.”

University of Michigan epidemiologist Aubree Gordon agreed, though she said lifting restrictions “feels a bit early to me.”

It won't change the minds of those adamantly opposed to vaccines, she said, but for those who just haven’t taken the time, it might nudge them to drop in a local drugstore.

In the meantime, business owners and managers spent the weekend trying to navigate what was best for patrons, staff and their bottom line without “getting people more riled up than they already are,” said Kerry Ott, spokesperson for the LMAS Health Department, which covers four counties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

At Lambertville Hardware in Southeast Michigan, employees stripped the “masks required” signs off the door about 7:30 a.m. Saturday, said owner Evelyn Oswald.

A wee bit early, she acknowledged, but, “Hey, we figured it was 9 o’clock somewhere.”

Oswald said she was thrilled to be rid of hot, uncomfortable masks that hid the faces of the customers she’s gotten to know over 50 years at this small-town, family business.

The CDC guidance would help bring to an end, she said, more than a year of “confusion and sometimes rudeness.”

Many customers had been annoyed they had to wear masks. Others refused to be served by the store’s cashier, who she said couldn’t wear a mask because of severe asthma.

Evelyn Oswald
Customers appreciated being able to shop without uncomfortable masks; and long-time hardware store owner Evelyn Oswald said she was thrilled to see their faces again. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

On Sunday, many customers approached the store’s sliding glass with masks in hand, but seeing no familiar “mask required” sign, they stuffed their masks instead into pockets and purses as they snapped up pots and plants, garden gloves, shovels and other purchases of a perfect spring planting day.

Rick Martin was not among them, even as another customer walked by twirling a mask on his finger.

Martin, an Ohio police officer, 65, had slipped on a mask when he stepped inside to pick up water softener.

“I guess it’s a habit,” he said of wearing a mask. “And how do you know (who has been vaccinated)? Until we see more people getting vaccinated, I’ll keep mine on — at least when I’m inside.”

Southwest of Grand Rapids, the Holland Aquatic Center alerted visitors that it would follow the CDC guidance, sharing an update before 7 a.m. Saturday.

But that was too late to alert parents and children gathering for a two-day swim meet, said Ashima Saigal, mother of a 12-year-old competitor. Both mother and daughter wore masks in the center. Saigal said she worried unvaccinated people were among the unmasked as well.

sign
Signs like these that became part of the business landscape throughout the last year began disappearing this weekend as businesses shifted to new rules that allowed fully-vaccinated patrons to ditch their masks. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

She had instructed her daughter to walk away politely from unmasked adults. After all, children under 16 years old have not been fully vaccinated yet, since the vaccine for adolescents was given the green light only this month, she said.

But, she said, her daughter shouldn't be placed in such confusing situations. The young swimmers were kept masked until they competed, and they were allowed to have just one spectator — all ways to reduce any spread of the virus. But the adults didn’t have to wear masks, Saigal said.

“I could have pulled her out (of the competition), but that’s super awkward for her,” Saigal said. “My concern here is what we’re doing, what we’re saying to the kids. You’re sending mixed messages to them.”

Jack Huisingh, the center’s executive director, said staff made its decision only after careful deliberation.

“We would not have made the decision to allow fully vaccinated guests  (to enter without masks) if it compromised our commitment to safety in any way,” he said in an email to Bridge.

In response to the aquatic center’s Facebook post about the new CDC guidance, a patron asked what they called “a silly question.”

“How are you going to know which is which?” referring to vaccinated versus unvaccinated visitors.

“For now,” the response reads, “we're going to ask our visitors to be honest about their vaccination status.”

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