When President Joe Biden hailed new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for fully vaccinated people last Thursday, his words struck a hopeful chord with some owners of businesses large and small — while completely baffling others.
"Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus," Biden said during a press briefing in the Rose Garden. "Just a few hours ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the CDC — announced that they are no longer recommending that fully vaccinated people need to wear masks. This recommendation holds true whether you are inside or outside."
Between the CDC's announcement on Thursday and Monday, Walmart, Trader Joe's and Costco announced they would not require fully vaccinated customers to wear a mask indoors.
In downtown Palo Alto over the weekend, the staff at Greek restaurant Taverna served their customers maskless for the first time in 15 months. Nearly all 60 employees have been vaccinated, co-owner Thanasis Pashalidis said on Monday morning.
"We're following the instructions of our president," Pashalidis said. "Our decision for our staff not to wear masks was extremely well-received on Friday."
Pashalidis was ready to hear concerns from diners, but there were none, he said. Instead, vaccinated patrons happily removed their own masks.
Even a health care worker who ate there felt curious rather than uncomfortable, he added.
"How do you feel?" the health worker asked, according to Pashalidis.
"How do you feel?" he asked in return.
"I'm vaccinated, so (I'm fine)," the diner replied.
"Exactly!" Pashalidis said.
But the CDC's announcement, while welcomed by those who are exhausted by mask mandates, also immediately created confusion for others.
On the evening of the CDC announcement, Praveen Madan, CEO of Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, sent an email to his staff. The subject line: "Has the CDC lost its mind?"
Madan was baffled and critical of the new announcement, linking in the staff-wide email an article from the New York Times, which interviewed hundreds of epidemiologists who said in an informal survey they expected Americans to keep wearing masks for at least another year.
"So here's a group of scientists saying one thing and the CDC coming out saying it's different," Madan said. "Frankly, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever."
Galip Vural, owner of Olympus Caffe & Bakery and Ephesus in Mountain View, likewise views the CDC change in guidance as premature.
"We are kind of confused," Vural said. "We don’t know what we're going to do really."
When Vural heard the CDC announcement, he wasn't sure whether or not businesses would be required to follow the new directive and allow staff to take off their masks.
Throughout the pandemic, Vural said he has been cautious and vigilant, paying attention to ICU-admittance numbers to keep track of the coronavirus's impact in his area. Currently, all 24 employees across his two stores must wear masks.
Vural said he's most likely going to continue the practice even if there's an update to the mask guidelines within the county.
"I'm thinking it's too soon," he said. "I don't believe (the pandemic) is finished."
California will delay until June 15
Regardless of one's views of the current state of the pandemic, the CDC included a major exception to its guidance that contributed to the confusion about acceptable rules: "Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."
California state guidelines have allowed all residents regardless of vaccination status to go without a mask or other face covering outdoors since May 3, as long as they can maintain proper distance between themselves and others.
In a May 12 memo, the California Department of Public Health specified that vaccinated persons can "spend time with other fully vaccinated people, including indoors, without wearing masks or physical distancing (outside a workplace setting)." They also can "spend time with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing."
On Monday, state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly responded unequivocally to the conflicting regulations: The state will begin following the new CDC guidance on June 15.
According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, June 15 is also the day the state plans to "reopen" the economy by allowing businesses to expand back to their full indoor capacities.
"This four-week period will give Californians time to prepare for this change while we continue the relentless focus on delivering vaccines," Ghaly said Monday during a media teleconference briefing.
Ghaly argued that the state is not questioning the safety or timing of the CDC's guidance by waiting until June 15 to lift California's mask mandate.
Rather, state health officials plan to use the next month to determine to what extent the state will enforce some masking rules and how it will do so.
"It's in no way saying the science or the direction by the CDC is wrong or there's a challenge to it," Ghaly said. "It's really just giving ourselves across the state some additional time to have it implemented with a high degree of integrity with a continued focus on protecting the public health in mind."
Whose responsibility to enforce?
Whether the guidance is implemented now or later, some businesses along the Midpeninsula are concerned about the implications of loosened rules, which might require store employees to determine who among their customers are vaccinated — and thus able to go maskless — and who are not.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN's Jake Tapper on May 13 that he didn't think putting businesses in that position makes sense.
"People feel very put upon if you're essentially judging them on the basis of whether they have been vaccinated," Fauci said. "I think there's going to be a pushback against questioning somebody when they walk in because you can never validate or prove that they're telling you the truth."
For Madan of Kepler's, vetting customers would be an undue burden. Just this past weekend, Madan said, a handful of customers came into the store without masks because of the CDC announcement, and employees had to remind them that the store policy still requires it.
"We're working so hard to keep businesses (afloat). … The last thing we need is a potential customer-service nightmare where we have to remind customers why we're following guidelines that are opposed to the CDC's."
And while he understood the federal agency's rationale behind allowing fully vaccinated people to take off masks, Madan wondered how businesses are supposed to know which customers are vaccinated.
"Are we supposed to have someone stationed at the entrance and check vaccination cards or are we supposed to take people's words for it? … There's no way for us to know. It just seems premature to be given this wide-open broad license to people to stop wearing masks."
Back at Taverna, Pashalidis said that, while protecting the health of staff and patrons has been important during the pandemic, he feels the responsibility for wearing a mask in the future lies with those who haven't gotten the shots.
"It's a social responsibility to keep wearing a mask if you are unvaccinated," he said. But he isn't too worried. "We'll get through this," he said.
Cautious business owners found an ally over the weekend in their opposition to the CDC guidance. The California Nurses Association called the mask advice "a huge blow to our collective efforts at confronting COVID-19 and the pandemic."
"We join with our national affiliate, National Nurses United, in condemning the CDC" guidance, the group stated in a press release on Monday. The new rule "is based upon faulty science."
National Nurses United President Deborah Burger stated: "Nurses follow the precautionary principle, which means that until we know for sure something is safe, we use the highest level of protections, not the lowest. The CDC is putting lives at risk with this latest guidance."
Amid the changing regulations, there are also those who are happy to follow whatever mandates that local public health experts deem to be best and say they'll do as instructed.
"We're still doing the same thing," Luis Gonzalez, store manager of Mama Coco Cocina in Menlo Park, said on Monday afternoon.
Despite the new updates from the CDC and Biden, the restaurant will maintain the same mask rules for restaurants and wait until there are updates from San Mateo County.
Gonzalez said that he'll be among the first to take off his mask once the county changes its guidelines and more people are vaccinated.
"I hate masks," Gonzalez said. "I can't breathe."
Across California, more than 34.5 million vaccine doses have been administered since the coronavirus vaccines first became available in mid-December.
Roughly 15.6 million state residents — 49% of the state's population — are fully vaccinated, according to state vaccination data. Another 4.7 million — 15% of the population — have received the first dose of either of the two-dose vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.