Mask etiquette: More are getting vaccinated, but many keeping them on

Connecticut is on the back end of the COVID pandemic, but with mixed signals from federal and state officials on mask requirements, residents are balancing their own judgments on public health and face-covering etiquette.

Ellen Guion said she’s glad the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its guidance on mask wearing last week. She’s been fully vaccinated since February, but still intends to wear a mask inside for the foreseeable future.

“I'm not in any store for that long and I believe it’s better to be safe than sorry,” the Stratford resident said.

The CDC said last week that masks are no longer necessary if you’ve been fully vaccinated, a guidance Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said the state would be following as of Wednesday, when restaurants expand capacity and bars reopen for the first time in 14 months.

Guion is not alone. Many residents say they’ll continue to wear masks, at least indoors, even if they’ve been inoculated, even after most restrictions end on Wednesday.

“I'm fully vaccinated but plan to continue wearing a mask in public places indoors — supermarkets and other retail stores,” said Redding’s Brian Sharlach. Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont, said that starting the 19th, vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks inside, although the unvaccinated should wear face coverings.

And of course, consistent eith Lamont’s philospphy throughout the pandemic, Connecticut is on the honor system to determine who’s vaccinated. Schools will continue to maintain masking, as most students have not been vaccinated.

Gordon Kirkman, who called Old Saybrook home for 25 years, said he’s “received both Moderna shots but will continue to mask in all indoor spaces and also in crowded outdoor spaces.” Kirkman suspects a motive behind the abrupt announcement from the CDC on May 13 that vaccinated people could remove their masks indoors.

“I do posit that perhaps this abrupt reversal of common sense was politically concocted to scare people into getting vaccinated,” he said.

Lamont, during a news conference from the State Capitol on Monday, admitted surprise to last week’s announcement lifting mask recommendations.

“If you’re in a big group, a crowd, I would probably wear my mask a little bit longer,” Lamont said of outdoor gatherings. “Indoors, you’ve got to wear a mask if you are unvaccinated. That’s the rule. If you’re vaccinated, if you’re able to keep your distance, you’re not worried about it. That’s okay. Businesses, state and local government, universities, restaurants, they’re going to make up their own mind, a little bit, based on what their customers are telling them. What makes them feel comfortable. What makes their employees feel comfortable.”

Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of the small family owned chain of landmark supermarkets in Norwalk, Newington, Danbury and Yonkers, N.Y. said about half his employees are comfortable removing masks, but he wants to see how the Memorial Day holiday weekend goes before possible changing store policy.

Lamont, who invited Leonard to his virtual news conference on Monday, said individual owners will respond to conditions.

“I think Stew is handling it right,” Lamont said. ‘Let’s try it out to Memorial Day, see where people feel comfortable. I think than me dictating it, though, I’d like to leave it up to smart people like Stew Leonard.”

The state Department of Public Health on Monday reported 21 new fatalities over the weekend, bringing the statewide total in the pandemic to 8,194. There was a net reduction of 28 hospitalized patients, for a total of 170. The infection rate was 1.3 percent, and 1.4 percent over seven days, which Lamont was happy with.

Tom Balcezak, chief medical officer at Yale New Haven Hospital, believes the CDC’s goal was to “Hang a carrot out there for those who are not yet vaccinated.”

Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, told FOX News Sunday that the decision to revise the national mask mandate was based on medical data.

“I’m delivering the science as the science is delivered to the medical journals. And it evolved,” she said. “I deliver it as soon as I can when we have that information available.”

According to Balcezak, the decision to revise the mandate, and using science as a basis, is not always straightforward.

“We are struggling as a country and as a world to try to get the science right and try and get the timing right,” he said. “This is a very difficult thing to do and the decisions we need to make are hard decisions.”

Masks will still be required in some locations. Only vaccinated adults can remove their masks according to the CDC guidance, and people in schools, public transportation and medical facilities, including nursing homes must continue to wear masks.

When asked if a simpler message would have been more effective, Balcezak said that was not necessarily true.

“We can always message things better,” he said. “Even with a clearer message it will still be politicized. None of us have experienced a global pandemic with a respiratory virus like this.”

Not every Connecticut resident will continue to wear a mask. Some, like, Guion, will feel free to go unmasked in small groups, outdoors.

“Visiting a friend whose entire family has been vaccinated and sitting in their yard -- no, I don't think a mask would be necessary there,” she said.

Gail Wiggin of Darien said she and her husband will be ditching their masks as soon as possible.

“Hubby and I are fully vaccinated and do not plan to wear masks unless it is required,” she said. “End of story.”

Schools will require students to remain masked, particularly those too young to become vaccinated.

“The mask mandate remains in effect indoors for the remainder of the school year,” wrote Bridgeport School Superintendent Michael J. Testani on the system’s website. “With only four weeks left in school, and the vast majority of students statewide not yet vaccinated, it is not anticipated that the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Connecticut state Department of Education (DOE) will change the mask mandate for this school year.”

Peter Yazbak, spokesperson for the DOE, said Friday that the agency is working closely with the DPH, especially as the CDC updates its guidance, such as the recent approval of inoculating 12-to-15-year-olds.

“At this time, Connecticut’s 2020-21 back to school guidance requires universal mask wearing and is binding/required in light of the Governor’s Executive Orders,” Yazbak said.

“We are working one-on-one with school and local health leaders to share materials (in multiple languages) that will help with their outreach; additionally, we are encouraging more tailored outreach tactics,” Yazbak said. “We know from experience with the 16-18 age group that school-run efforts can be very effective, particularly when held on-site at a school. This helps to reduce logistical barriers for students.”

Vaccinations are not mandatory, although private institutions such as The Taft School in Watertown, are requiring their students to take the COVID vaccine.

Staff writer Cayla Bamberger contributed to this report.