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New guidance: Most in Michigan can ditch their masks for now

person in mask in bar
Residents in most Michigan counties are no longer under CDC recommendations to mask indoors. (Bridge file photo by Robin Erb.)

March 18: As pandemic wanes, Michigan confronts toll of isolation on homebound seniors
March 17: Omicron sub-variant BA.2 cases creep up in Michigan; some fear another wave
March 4: Angry Up North: scars linger after Michigan school mask mandates end

March 3: Michigan State University to relax COVID-19 mask mandate

The federal government gave its blessing on Friday to making masks optional indoors for broad swaths of the nation, including for residents in 66 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

In a nod to waning COVID-19 infection across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday suggested that mask wearing should be optional in counties where COVID spread is low and hospitals are no longer strained by COVID patients.

 

Under the CDC’s new three-tied risk system, which asks local officials to look beyond just new case numbers, most Michigan counties meet the “mask-optional” guidance.  

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In fact, about 70 percent of the U.S. population now can feel more comfortable about going maskless indoors, though the CDC makes clear that individuals have different levels of risk. 

The tiers are based on three factors: a community’s case rates, new COVID-related hospital admissions, and the number of beds occupied by COVID patients. County risk levels can be found here at the CDC’s homepage, as well as a more detailed list of recommendations, including the recommendation to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Under the CDC’s new advisory system:

  • Residents in low-level counties should consider mask wearing based on “personal preference, informed by your personal level of risk.” 
  • Residents in medium-level counties should talk to a health provider and consider masks indoors if they are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness. Anyone who lives with or has social contact with someone at high risk for severe illness, should consider testing and masking indoors.
  • Residents in high level counties should wear a well-fitting mask in public indoors, including in K-12 schools and other community settings, regardless of vaccination status or individual risk.

The new guidance was not unexpected.

Less than a month ago, as omicron continued to batter the country and Michigan, the CDC stepped up mask recommendations by asking people to wear N95s or any other high-quality mask they could wear comfortably and “consistently.” 

But cases and hospitalizations have plummeted since then.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer dialed back the state’s mask recommendations just over a week ago, even as the final few county health departments that still had school mask mandates rescinded theirs.

Some of the mandates were lifted immediately; others — including Oakland and Washtenaw counties — were effective Feb. 28, meaning students would have returned to mask-optional classrooms, anyway, Monday.

But expect to see masks in plenty of places still in Michigan, at least in the immediate future. Michigan hospitals are likely to keep mask policies for visitors in place, for example. Spokespeople for some of the largest health systems — the newly merged Spectrum and Beaumont health systems, known as BHSH, Trinity Health Michigan, and Michigan Medicine — said patients and visitors still must be masked.

And a mask mandate remained in place Friday at Detroit Public Schools Community District, and will likely stay in place for some time, according to a statement by Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti, noting once again “the city’s lower vaccination rates and higher transmission rates.”

The guidance is unlikely to change everyday behavior for many in a state where residents have already decided to keep or ditch masks. The guidance makes clear that everyone’s risk level may be different, especially for those who are immunocompromised or face high risk of severe COVID disease.

But for others, the Friday announcement forces yet another difficult calculus.

Customers at The Rocket, a gift and candy store in downtown Ypsilanti, were required to wear masks through Friday, according to a sign at the front door, standing alongside a large bottle of hand sanitizer.

The new CDC guidance “gives the green light for everybody to come into the store and give you problems,” said owner Eli Morrissey.

So he said he will downgrade the directions to “recommending” masks. Already, increasingly angry customers had been harassing his staff, he said. 

“The abuse — it was making it really difficult on my employees,” he said. “It’s hard to enforce a mask policy when no one else” requires a mask.

Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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