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WATCH NOW: CDC's about-face on masks puts businesses, residents in limbo

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Since the start of the pandemic, masks have become a ubiquitous part of daily life.

They've been a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus that's killed more than 3.3 million people worldwide, including more than 580,000 in the United States.

Indiana dropped its statewide mask requirement last month, but most businesses and other establishments still required, or at least recommended, face coverings indoors.

Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is saying fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks inside in most cases in what some have heralded as a sign that a return to normal life is getting closer.

About a dozen states have announced plans to drop mask mandates. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh on Friday said the governor is changing his executive orders regarding mask use as well. 

In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Department of Health are reviewing the new CDC guidance to determine whether it will lead to any further changes in the state's policies.

Safety first

The CDC said that people are protected against COVID-19 two weeks after their second shot and that early data suggests vaccines prevent people from spreading the virus to others. It estimates that at least 58.9% of the adult population in the U.S. has gotten at least the first dose of the vaccine, but children under the age of 12 are not yet able to get the vaccine.

Indiana University Northwest Associate Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said wearing masks and getting vaccinated were the best ways to protect people, and the policy change meant greater reliance on vaccination to keep the virus in check. 

"For states like Vermont or Massachusetts, which have over 60% of their population vaccinated, this is probably a reasonable change," he said. "But for Indiana, which has less than 40% of the population with at least their first dose, I worry this change in guidance may be putting more people than we think at risk."

Dr. Gabriel Bosslet, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University and an affiliate faculty member at the Charles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics, said he would still encourage people to wear masks until vaccination rates increase.

"It might be a little early," he said. "It might be better to wait to have 55% of the public vaccinated in Indiana."

But he said the CDC's policy shift might increase vaccination rates by giving people an incentive to get vaccinated.

"Some people may get vaccinated if it means they no longer need to wear masks," he said. "My hope is that it will be a good step."

Many businesses, including Strack & Van Til, said they are now reevaluating their mask policies based on the new CDC guidance. Companies are not rushing to lift mask requirements, saying that there is no clear way to determine which customers are vaccinated, that they prioritize the health of their employees and that more study is needed. 

“We’re reevaluating our in-store mask policy based on the latest CDC guidance," a CVS spokesman said. "The safety of our employees and customers will continue to guide our decision-making process.”

Walgreen's is leaving its mask requirement in place for now.

"As a destination for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, we have decided to keep our current face-covering policy in place for the time being," a Walgreens spokesman said. "The safety of our team members and customers is our top priority and will continue to guide our decision process."

The local pharmacy Vyto's, which has locations in Highland and Hammond, is now researching the ramifications of a policy change. 

"It's a catch-22, as we have both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff that work side by side with the public," Vyto's spokeswoman Cathlene Antczak said. "We want to be sure that any changes we make are best for both our patients and our staff.

"The goal at Vyto's Pharmacy is to keep everyone as healthy and safe as possible while we work toward a more normal way of life. As of today, we're making no changes, though that may change in the near future."

Businesses have questions about how to keep customers and employees safe when any unmasked person could claim to be vaccinated, just as some claimed to have medical conditions that prevented them from wearing face coverings.

“On the surface, that’s great news," Menard's spokesman Jeff Abbott said. "However, the CDC has forgotten to tell us how to tell the difference between a vaccinated person and an unvaccinated person. We are making inquiries and are anxiously awaiting their further instruction."

Minneapolis-based Target, which has stores across Northwest Indiana, is leaving its mask mandate in place for now as it studies the issue further.

"Target will continue to require all of our coronavirus safety measures in all stores, including masks and social distancing, while we review guidance from the CDC and evaluate the guidance we offer our team and guests," a company spokesperson said.

Meijer, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based chain, also will err on the side of caution for the time being.

"While we are aware of new CDC guidance, many state or local orders in the Meijer footprint remain in effect regarding masks," a Meijer spokesman said. "In order to help ensure the continued health and safety of all its team members and customers, Meijer continues to require face coverings by anyone entering a Meijer store or Meijer Express station at all locations, except where medical conditions prevent them from wearing one."

Aldi will still require masks while it encourages employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, covering administration costs and offering up to four paid hours off so they can get vaccinated.

"Since the onset of the pandemic, Aldi has prioritized the health and well-being of customers and employees. At this time, we will continue to require all employees and customers to wear a face covering when shopping in our stores and to maintain social distancing," a spokesperson said. "We will continue to assess our current safety practices and keep customers informed of any future changes."

Changes may be coming soon at some businesses, such as White Castle.

“As a family-owned business we will continue to focus on the safety of our customers and team members by following local health guidelines," White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson said. 'We expect that in the days and weeks ahead we will be modifying some of our current practices. At this point, we are still considering those possible changes.”

The Lake County Public Library Board of Trustees will revisit the mask requirement at its June 24 meeting. Masks are still required at all libraries for the time being.

"Why are we waiting? We want to give our staff a chance to get their vaccine before relaxing any of our safety procedures. Our staff are our most valuable asset and they deserve a safe work environment," the library said in an email to patrons. "June 24 is simply the date after which all staff who have chosen to vaccinate will have the full protection the vaccine provides. The board will consider the CDC's guidelines, vaccination rates, and case numbers in our community to determine our path forward."

Family Express, the Valparaiso-based chain of convenience store chains, planned to notify employees they would no longer have to wear masks while at work if they brought in documentation proving they had been fully vaccinated.

Residents react

While some can't wait to go around maskless and others rarely or never wore masks during the pandemic, some people said they would continue to wear face coverings out of consideration for others.

Hammond resident Pete Vuletic said he would continue to "wear a mask out of respect if I see staff at an establishment wearing them."

Hobart music teacher Steven Moeller said he would keep his mask on at least through the end of the school year.

Several commenters on The Times' Facebook page offered their opinions. 

"As far as out in public, I’ll defer to the rules of the place I’m in," one said.

Another commenter said she was done with masks if she no longer had to wear them.

"I had COVID and I’m fully vaxxed and if I don’t have to wear one I won't," she said. "It’s suffocating for eight hours a day. The threat lies between folks who aren’t vaxxed or immune in any way. Not to those vaxxed. There’s been plenty of opportunity to get vaxxed so if you choose not to, that’s on you if you get sick. You won’t be getting sick from immune people, but within non-immune populace. I’ve been doing it to protect others and out of respect, but now we know we have all had the opportunity to choose one way or the other ... it’s your choice."

Rick Barker, of Highland, said the practice has just become second nature, but he is looking forward to a return to the old normalcy.

"I’m so used to wearing a mask now, it’s just habit to put a mask on whenever I go into any store," he said. "I’m fully vaccinated, but it still just seems normal to grab a mask before I leave the house. I am looking forward to going back to ancient times though."

Another commenter said she plans to continue to wear masks until 2022 out of an abundance of caution.

"I've gone this far so I'm going further for the safety of myself. Yes, I'm fully vaccinated but I won't take that chance that someone may not be," she said. "How can we tell who hasn't been vaccinated? We can't so 2022 here I come."


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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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