Mask mandates are creeping back in a handful of states. But for the majority, leaders are holding off on making masks compulsory even as the omicron variant stirs renewed concern over rising coronavirus infection throughout the country.
Rhode Island announced the return of a partial indoor mask on Wednesday, which will make masks mandatory in indoor spaces – including restaurants, gyms, entertainment venues and other public places with a capacity of more than 250 people, while smaller venues may either require proof of vaccination or masks.
“We were in the process of actually ramping down the COVID a week before Thanksgiving,” Gov. Dan McKee said during a news conference Wednesday as he announced the state’s new restrictions. “But we have to react to what’s in front of us. Infection rates are rising, we know that there’s a variant that we need to deal with, we’re going to need your help to deal with it.”
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Rhode Island joins California, where a statewide mask mandate went into effect for everyone Wednesday, regardless of vaccination status, six months after the state removed the restrictions for those who had gotten the shot and as the omicron variant poses a newfound threat to the pandemic recovery nationwide.
In New York, officials strengthened mask restrictions this week amid uncertainty surrounding omicron. Like California, masks had previously been required in New York for the unvaccinated, but starting Monday, masks became compulsory for everyone in indoor spaces where proof of full vaccination is not required.
The three states add to the list of six others throughout the U.S. where masks are required for most people at the state level – Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, while in Connecticut, masks are required only for the unvaccinated. But the new mask requirements, which come from states that have been at the forefront of coronavirus restrictions throughout the pandemic, are not necessarily a harbinger of what’s to come nationwide, as the majority of states appear to be choosing to stay out of – or stand in direct opposition – to the restrictions.
The federal position remains that everyone should wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, in indoor places with high transmission, which now includes most places in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while the government has employed vaccine mandates to combat the coronavirus pandemic, it’s largely stayed out of making masks mandatory.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a news conference Tuesday that the administration is letting states decide masking for themselves, saying “we really leave it to leaders in states to make decisions about what needs to be done to keep communities safe.”
The result has been that state leaders who previously touted mask mandates generally appear reluctant to reinstate the restrictions, even as omicron threatens to surge nationwide. Meanwhile, the collection of states, mostly with GOP governors, who turned masks into a divisive political issue are all but certain not to revisit their use as cases rise.
Some governors have likewise deferred to local leaders to impose mask mandates. But some GOP state leaders have made implementing a mask mandate at the local level nearly impossible, like in Florida, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee and Texas – using either legislative or executive action to prevent local governments or school districts from imposing their own mandates.
Mask mandates were perhaps at their peak nationally a year ago, before coronavirus vaccines became widely available and as the country headed into a surge during the winter months. Those mandates were scaled back, then lifted altogether as cases dwindled heading into the summer, and largely evaporated in May when the CDC updated its guidance, announcing that vaccinated individuals could “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”
And now, as the winter months begin again and as the omicron variant threatens to infect even those who have been fully vaccinated, the situation is not far removed from where it stood last winter.
“As we expected, because it was getting colder outside and more people are congregating inside, we’ve seen an increase of the COVID cases in Rhode Island, which has brought us to this point where we need to address this issue head on,” McKee said while announcing the new masking restrictions. “But this winter is different than last winter. … All of our hospitals are at a breaking point.”
But even as the winter months and increased time indoors threaten hospital systems throughout the country, outside of the minority of states implementing mask mandates, the emphasis has been on encouraging boosters rather than increased restrictions.
The stance may reflect the mood of the country. Although 36% of Americans are extremely or very worried about themselves or a family member being infected with coronavirus amid omicron, up from 25% in October, Americans report similar levels of activity to June, when fear of infection was at its lowest since the pandemic began, according to a recent AP-NORC poll.
“We know people are tired and hungry for normalcy,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services told reporters. But Ghaly added that the science supports masking.
According to a study conducted by the CDC in Kansas, following Gov. Laura Kelly’s July 2020 mask mandate on a county-by-county basis, the 24 counties with mandatory mask mandates saw an overall decrease in COVID-19 cases, while the 81 counties that opted out of the mask mandate continued to see increases in cases. Similarly, research conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Department of Health Policy found that COVID-19 death tolls were twice as high in Tennessee counties without mask mandates as compared to counties with directives in place.
But public support for mask and mask restrictions may be higher than hesitancy from leaders seems to suggest. According to a recent Axios/Ipsos survey, 64% of people nationally support state and local mask mandates and 69% of people reported that they are wearing masks either always or sometimes when they leave the house.