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How The CDC Change on Mask Guidance Set Off Confusion in States and Cities

SAN ANTONIO — Minnesota’s statewide mask mandate is over. But in Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, face coverings are still required.

In Michigan, Kentucky and Oregon, governors cheerily told vaccinated people that they could go out maskless. But mask mandates remained in force for New Yorkers, New Jerseyans and Californians.

So unexpected was new federal guidance on masks that in Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas went from saying he would not change his mask order, to saying he would think about it, to announcing that he was getting rid of it altogether, all in the span of about seven hours.

Across the country, governors, store owners and people running errands were scrambling on Friday to make sense of the abrupt change in federal guidelines, which said fully vaccinated people could now safely go most places, indoors or outdoors, without a mask.

At least 20 states that still had mask mandates in place this week said by Friday evening that they would exempt fully vaccinated people or repeal the orders entirely, while at least five others with mask requirements had not announced any changes. The rapidly changing rules brought an end to more than a year of mandatory masking in much of the country, even as some said they were not yet ready to take off their face coverings.

“I’m going to wear a mask for a long time to come,” said Fanny Lopez, 28, who was grocery shopping in San Antonio on Friday morning while wearing a black cloth mask. “I trust the mask more than the vaccine. The government messages are confusing, telling us to wear a mask one day and the next day no.”

The sudden shift in public health advice resonated at every level of government, from City Hall in Hartsville, S.C., where a local mask mandate was allowed to expire, to Nevada’s Gaming Control Board, which said it was not practical “to attempt to enforce a mask mandate tethered to an individual’s vaccination status,” to the U.S. Capitol, where the attending physician said House members would still have to cover their faces on the floor of the chamber.

But the shift was perhaps most challenging for governors and big-city mayors, many of whom have expended significant political capital on mask orders in the face of protests and lawsuits, and who were not given a heads-up about the change in federal policy before it was announced on Thursday.

Mayor Lucas said he could not keep Kansas City’s order in place since there was no easy way to differentiate people who are fully vaccinated — now 36 percent of Americans — from the 64 percent who are not.

“While I understand the C.D.C.’s theory that they could just create a rule that says vaccinated folks go anywhere without a mask, and everybody else who’s unvaccinated will follow it, I don’t know if that’s the type of rule that was written in coordination with anyone who has been a governor or a mayor over the last 14 months,” said Mr. Lucas, a Democrat.

The new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which came amid a steep drop in new cases and an expansion of vaccine eligibility to everyone 12 and older, signaled a shift toward pre-pandemic social norms, when no one thought twice about buying groceries or sitting down in their cubicle with a bare mouth and nose. Walmart announced on Friday that fully vaccinated employees and customers would no longer need to wear masks, and Costco issued a similar announcement.

“At least 20 times today I kept grabbing my short pockets looking for my face mask,” said Erik Darmstetter, who is fully vaccinated and owns Office Furniture Liquidations in San Antonio. “It wasn’t there. I keep forgetting we don’t need it anymore.”

Others were moving more slowly. Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said he would keep his state’s mask mandate in place, writing on Twitter that “we’re making incredible progress, but we’re not there yet.” And Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, indicated he would revisit his state’s rules next week, but he did not announce any immediate changes.

That was fine with Kay McGowan, who owns a rug and furniture shop in Somerville, Mass. She said that she would not be taking off her mask, nor would she allow customers to do so.

“It feels too early to me,” Ms. McGowan said.

The C.D.C. announcement on Thursday caught mayors and governors off guard. Through the evening on Thursday, and into Friday afternoon, states and cities announced one at a time that they were revising or ending their mask orders.

Governors in New Mexico, Maine, Maryland and Colorado were among those who adjusted their rules Friday in light of the C.D.C. guidance. In Rhode Island, where officials learned about the new federal guidance in the middle of a news conference on Thursday, state leaders said on Friday that they would relax their mask rules.

But the new C.D.C. suggestions were not universally popular. Some public health experts questioned the wisdom of the relaxed guidelines, while local officials confronted the reality that, if they created separate rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, there was no real way of knowing who was who.

“The people that have been pushing the limits on not wearing a mask, as it is, are also the ones that tend to not be vaccinated,” said Mayor Kim Norton of Rochester, Minn. “To say vaccinated people can take their masks off will not give us any assurance that the person next to us has been vaccinated.”

Mayor Tishaura Jones of St. Louis, who announced Friday that mask rules would be loosened in her city, said she hoped business owners would ask about the vaccination status of maskless customers.

“But we don’t want this to turn into sort of like a show-me-your-papers moment,” said Ms. Jones, who said that she personally planned to continue wearing a mask. “We’ll just have to trust what people tell us.”

For more than a year, masking had been urged by public health experts, a key to stopping the airborne spread of the coronavirus. Some places allowed their mask requirements to expire months ago, but face coverings remained mandatory this week in more than 20 states, as well as many cities and counties. Just a few weeks ago, the C.D.C. said fully vaccinated Americans could usually forgo masks outdoors, but should continue wearing them in public spaces indoors.

The agency changed course on Thursday, saying people who were at least two weeks past their final dose of a vaccine could safely go most places, both indoors and outdoors, without a mask. The C.D.C. said everyone should still wear a mask in certain settings, including health care facilities, on public transportation and on flights.

In San Antonio, Sue Morgan, who said she is fully vaccinated and works at Mr. Darmstetter’s store, was happy to return to something approaching normal.

“I came in with a mask today and wasn’t sure how we were going to approach this,” said Ms. Morgan, who works in customer service at the store. “Then we all took them off. I must say, it’s nice to see faces again.”

But Rachael McKinnon, who said she left her teaching job in Massachusetts this year because of concerns about the safety of reopening schools, expressed doubts on Friday about the timing of the C.D.C.’s decision given how many people remain unvaccinated.

“At some point we need to move on with our lives, and we need to decide that there’s a point when things are safe,” Ms. McKinnon said, “but I just don’t know that it’s now.”

Edgar Sandoval reported from San Antonio, Kate Taylor from Cambridge, Mass., and Mitch Smith from Chicago. John Yoon, Benjamin Guggenheim Lauren Hirsch and Tracey Tully contributed to this story.

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