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Shopping Without A Mask Depends On Where You Live, Despite New CDC Guidelines

The CDC's new guidelines on face coverings and social distancing are raising questions about grocery store requirements moving forward.
Daniel Acker
Bloomberg via Getty Images
The CDC's new guidelines on face coverings and social distancing are raising questions about grocery store requirements moving forward.

After more than a year of telling Americans to cover their faces and keep their distance whenever they're in public, the Centers for of Disease Control and Prevention is now advising that masks aren't necessary in most indoor spaces, as long as someone is fully vaccinated.

"Now is the moment" to relax the guidance for vaccinated Americans, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Thursday.

She credited a drop in infections, effective vaccines and availability of the shots to nearly everyone who wants one.

But local and state leaders in some places are still telling people to adhere to existing face-covering and social distancing guidelines, and businesses generally need to stick with the restrictions.

It's no surprise then that the sweeping reversal is causing some confusion about how people should behave out in the world — specifically in grocery stores.

Am I required to wear a mask to pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery store?

The short yet complicated answer is ... maybe.

The National Grocers Association, a trade group representing more than 1,500 retail and wholesale grocer members, said there isn't a one-size-fits-all policy they're endorsing.

"We expect our members to continue following all federal, state and local requirements for masking and social distancing until they are withdrawn, since the CDC has advised that people should still wear masks where required by laws, rules and regulations," spokesman Jim Dudlicek said on Thursday.

The CDC's Walensky encourages people to try to understand how their local communities are handling the containment of the pandemic.

"The whole country is not a homogeneous space," she said. "So, we have some jurisdictions that have higher levels of cases. We have some jurisdictions that have lower levels of vaccine administration." As a result, cities and towns will likely be implementing different strategies.

In other words, before heading out to buy a bag of baby kale, check to see if your city or state are still enforcing a mask mandate even if you are partially or fully vaccinated.

What about grocery store workers, will they be wearing masks?

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1.3 million essential food and retail workers, is telling members to continue wearing personal protective equipment if it's required where they work.

Union officials added they are concerned about the new CDC guidance because it continues to put essential workers on the frontlines at risk.

"While we all share the desire to return to a mask-free normal, today's CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks," UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.

Perrone noted that essential workers are often "forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures."

He asked: "Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?"

Perrone urged health experts not to lift restrictions against the potentially deadly coronavirus just yet.

"As one of America's largest unions for essential workers, UFCW is calling on the CDC and our nation's leaders to clarify how this new policy will be implemented, how essential workers will be protected, and how these workers will protect the communities they serve," he said.

How are you supposed to know who's vaccinated and who's not?

That is question posed by Dr. Leana Wen, a physician and former Baltimore Health Commissioner, who said she is shocked by the CDC's abrupt reversal of their guidelines for vaccinated people.

"If it's now optional and there's an honor code only for determining vaccination status, where does that leave us?" she asked.

Wen agrees that there should be no restrictions on vaccinated people but when you're walking down the cereal aisle, there is no way to truly know if that's the case. "I really worry about this because it actually makes it potentially less likely for those who are immunocompromised, or who have unvaccinated family members, to go about normal life."

The CDC director insists that the all three authorized vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — have proved to be as effective in "real world studies" as they were in the lab.

Additionally, Walensky said, "There is emerging data that has demonstrated that if you are vaccinated, you generally don't get asymptomatic infection and generally cannot transmit to other people."

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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