- Several states are lifting their mask mandates and reopening businesses 100 percent.
- Health experts recommend people continue to wear masks, practice physical distancing, avoid crowds, and wash their hands regularly.
- As soon as you become eligible for the vaccine, experts say to get whichever shot is available to you.
Several states have lifted their mask mandates and are restarting their economies at full capacity, prompting concerns of further surges of COVID-19.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon ended his state’s mask requirement as of March 16. Texas and Mississippi also recently lifted their mask mandates, joining Montana, North Dakota, and Iowa in a growing list of states that no longer require people to wear face coverings in public.
Other states are planning to follow suit. In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey stated that the mask requirement in her state would be lifted April 9.
What’s more, some states are also moving to reopen their economies.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced businesses are allowed to reopen at 100 percent as of March 10. In Maryland, restaurants, retailers, and other businesses are also now allowed to reopen at full capacity.
Lifting requirements for face coverings goes against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that everyone should continue to wear face masks and practice physical distancing out in public.
States’ decisions to move forward with easing restrictions have also defied advice from public health officials who have warned reopening the economy too early could lead to another surge of COVID-19 cases.
A ‘perfect storm’ for continued transmission
While COVID-19 cases have been trending downward in the United States — a hopeful sign as the nation continues its vaccine rollout — only 12 percent of people in the country have been fully vaccinated, according to the latest numbers from the CDC.
That’s a far cry from the 70 percent that's often cited as the number needed to reach herd immunity, and experts fear lifting restrictions too early could halt progress.
“There are a lot of medically vulnerable Americans who have not yet qualified for vaccination,” Dr. Ellen Eaton an infectious disease specialist at UAB Medicine in Birmingham, Alabama, told Healthline.
“Here in Alabama, for example, we have a fair number of 30-, 40-, and 50-year-olds who are obese and living with other conditions that put them at high risk of severe COVID. Yet, they’re potentially going to be exposed to more disease because of the lifting of the mask mandate,” she said.
“That can really be the perfect storm for continued transmission in small communities,” Eaton added.
How to stay safe if you live in a state that’s lifted its mask mandate
Experts note that just because a state has lifted its mask mandate does not mean people should stop wearing face coverings.
“Definitely continue to wear your mask,” Eaton said. “We know that it’s not as effective as when everyone wears their mask, but simply by wearing your mask you can protect yourself.”
Continue to practice physical distancing in public, wash your hands frequently, and avoid crowds and large gatherings.
“These are still the core public health measures we’ve been taking all along that can still be protective and helpful for individuals,” said Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
If you have the opportunity, work from home. If you haven’t been, and people in your workplace stop wearing masks once the mask mandate lifts, Eaton recommends asking to work remotely if possible.
“I certainly think our workforce who is essential, who feels unsafe at work because people aren’t masking, should speak up, and our small-business owners and public health officials really should be advocating for them to have options where they can work from home,” she said.
Ventilation is another important measure to think about.
“If someone is working in an environment where windows and doors can be kept open to allow for some ventilation with fresh air outside, that can also be helpful,” Kulkarni said. “That was harder when it was colder, but the weather is warming up in many areas of the country, so this adds another layer of potential layer of protection.”
You may also want to try double masking.
“We know that a properly fitted mask is going to be better than a loose gaiter or a face shield,” Eaton said. “We know that double masking with a surgical mask underneath a cloth covering may add some additional layer of protection to the person wearing it, so I would definitely encourage that for people who are in workspaces or have to be in crowded environments.”
Finally, Kulkarni notes that in Texas, individual businesses can still opt to require employees and customers to wear masks.
“Although the state is not officially requiring masks, individual businesses, including big retail chains, have chosen to still keep it in place,” he said. “So, if you need to go out for essentials, you could preferentially try to go to places where that’s what’s being done rather than places that have opted not to take that approach.”
Once you become eligible, get vaccinated
Health experts are urging everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they become eligible. Kulkarni advises not waiting for a particular vaccine.
“Whichever one you can get, go ahead and get it,” he said. “They’re all extremely efficacious at keeping people out of the hospital and also keeping people from dying from COVID-19.”
However, the CDC still advises people who are fully vaccinated to continue to wear masks and maintain physical distance in public.
A person is considered fully vaccinated 2 weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine and 2 weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
A major reason for this is that while these vaccines are exceptionally effective, “to varying degrees, they may not be as protective at preventing asymptomatic infection,” Kulkarni said. “This means you have the infection, but you don’t necessarily have any symptoms.”
“The reason why that’s relevant is there’s theoretical concern that someone could have an asymptomatic infection and asymptomatically transmit the virus to someone who’s not vaccinated,” he said. “This is an active area of research and the data are still emerging.”
There’s also the new virus variants to consider, such as those that emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil.
Kulkarni said preliminary data suggests the vaccines should still be very good at providing immunity against these variants, but he cautioned “there’s still a lot we don’t know yet that is being investigated.”
For these reasons, experts say it’s important not to ease restrictions too soon.
“If we operate under this premise that we’ve reached herd immunity prematurely and we bring folks together indoors for large gatherings unvaccinated and unmasked, we could potentially worsen things and precipitate more clusters of outbreaks and another surge,” Eaton said.