New York University and New School graduates are seen under the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park in New York City on May 13, 2021.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Disney quickly announced that it plans to further increase capacity limits at its U.S. theme parks a few hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced relaxed mask guidelines for the U.S. on Thursday.
“”[It’s] Big news for us, especially if someone was in Florida in the middle of summer wearing a mask, “joked CEO Bob Chapek about two hours after the new recommendations were published with analysts about a profit call.
“Given the guidance today from the CDC and previous guidance we received from the Florida governor, we have already begun increasing our capacity,” he said.
According to the CDC, in most environments, whether outdoors or indoors, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a face mask or stay 6 feet away from others as per updated guidelines. It’s the first time the federal government has been encouraging people to stop wearing masks since the agency first called for face coverings more than a year ago. It marks a major turning point in the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States and brings the country one step closer to normal. Public health experts also said the change is likely to encourage more Americans, especially those who are still reluctant to receive the shots, to get the vaccine.
However, the agency was sharply criticized for its quick turnaround. Just six weeks ago, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky facing “impending doom” as daily Covid-19 cases in the US rose again. And many health and business leaders say the new recommendations are too ambiguous. It will require critical manpower to oversee police vaccination records and will be difficult to enforce.
“Under current plans, in most cases it will be impossible to get this through,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease doctor at the University of California at San Francisco, told CNBC. “Businesses, schools and event organizers may still have the option to request proof of vaccination prior to joining certain communities or events. However, other everyday events do not enforce vaccination records or QR codes, as is the case in other countries.”
There are some cases where fully vaccinated people still have to wear masks: traveling by plane, bus or train, as well as going to specific locations such as hospitals, nursing homes, prisons or facilities where they are needed, the agency said. The guidance of the CDC is also not mandatory. States, municipalities and corporations can decide whether or not to follow suit, adding to the confusion of many entrepreneurs and employees.
Some health and legal experts told CNBC that this would further complicate public health efforts to end the pandemic, adding that it was “almost impossible” to monitor the use of face masks as there is no way to do it know who is vaccinated and who is not. More than half of the population still did not get the shots, they said, and risked more outbreaks from exposed, unvaccinated people.
During the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City, New York on May 14, 2021, people in Times Square ride a tour bus without a mask.
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
“While we all share a desire to return to a mask-free normal, today’s CDC guidance is confusing and does not take into account how this will affect key workers who are often exposed to those who are not vaccinated and who refuse to wear masks “said Marc Perrone, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said in a statement. “Elementary workers are still being forced to play masked police for shoppers who are not vaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Should they become the vaccination police now?”
Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president of retail stores and innovation for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, told CNBC that the new guidelines “create confusion for retailers because they are not fully aligned with state and local mandates.”
“These conflicting positions put retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations. We urge state and local governments to coordinate with the CDC as additional guidance is issued on the road to normalcy,” she said in a statement.
Beauty store chain Ulta Beauty said it has no plans to change its masking and social distancing requirements in its stores, despite being actively evaluating “the impact of this updated guide on our guests and employees.” The health and safety of employees and customers have top priority.
“I hate to say it’s complicated, but it’s complicated,” said David French, lobbyist for the National Retail Federation. On the one hand, the CDC guidelines could provide more clarity, but they also make things more complex as companies don’t know who is vaccinated or not – and neither does customers.
Even with the milestone announcement, customers shouldn’t expect immediate changes to their grocery or mall, said Joel Bines, global co-head of retail practice for consulting firm AlixPartners. He said the guidelines are going to make little difference to retailers who don’t know people’s vaccination status – and most importantly, want to make sure their employees and customers don’t get sick.
“This is an extremely difficult management problem for any business that physically interacts with consumers,” he said. “There are no operating instructions for this.”
Law professor Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, said the new guidelines could have “serious unforeseen consequences”.
“The public will not be comfortable shopping, dining or going to church or the gym if they have no idea whether the exposed person standing next to them is vaccinated or not,” Gostin said.
46% of the US population vaccinated
As of Thursday, more than 154 million Americans, 46.6% of the US population, had received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the CDC. Around 118 million Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the agency. The US government is working to convince more Americans to get vaccinated after the rate of fire has slowed in recent weeks.
Unlike some other countries, the US doesn’t have a system where people can prove they’ve been vaccinated. Even if there was, vaccinated people are unlikely to have their cards with them all the time, and not everyone will have digital evidence, said Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings College of Law. Areas with high vaccination rates can likely lift mask restrictions entirely, she added.
“This is an exciting and powerful moment,” Walensky, the CDC director, told reporters at a White House briefing on Covid-19 Thursday after announcing the new guidelines. “It could only happen because of the work of so many making sure that three safe and effective vaccines are given quickly.”
Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC
Source: CDC | Youtube
From an epidemiological point of view, the CDC guidance means “that we are in a place where we are in the best place in the pandemic that we have ever been as a country with ongoing declines in infections, hospitalizations and deaths,” said Chin-Hong.
“The symbolic meaning is even more tangible,” he added. “Masks were the symbol of fear and political division [and] Hopefully, if we take them off, at least for people who have been vaccinated, it will mean we can get back to the life we were aiming for before the pandemic. “
The Nevada Gaming Control Board, which sets the rules for casinos, immediately updated its rules so The Wynn Las Vegas can simplify its own mask guidelines. The company said that as of Friday, fully vaccinated guests and employees will not have to wear masks in its hotels and casinos.
Bow to pressure
Gostin and others criticized the CDC’s abrupt change in policy, saying it was bowing to pressure from the public and governors to return to normal. “As a result, CDC is significantly changing its guidelines, moving from excessive caution to all caution,” he said, adding that doing so could undermine public confidence in the agency. “The public will be less likely to rely on CDC guidelines if they feel like the agency is being pushed around.”
On Friday, Walensky defended the timing of the new leadership. In the past two weeks, daily Covid cases have decreased by more than a third, and vaccinations are now widespread in most places in the United States. She added the guidelines “empower” people to make decisions about their own health and urge them not to be vaccinated to people who do not run the risk of going out exposed.
If there are multiple people in an exposed room, the vaccinated will be protected from Covid, she said.
New scientific evidence shows people who are vaccinated are protected and have “very little risk of spreading Covid to other people,” even with some variants that appear to interfere with the vaccine’s effectiveness, she said on CBS This Morning.
– CNBC’s Nadine El-Bawab, Sarah Whitten, and Michael Wayland contributed to this article.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Dr. Peter Chin-Hong is an Infectious Disease Physician at the University of California at San Francisco.