Two months after the Omicron variant peaked at over 1.3 million cases in a single day, cities and businesses across the country are beginning to lift mask and vaccine mandates. With deaths now averaging 1,187 over a seven-day period as of March 15—down from 2,647 in February 2021—and President Joe Biden painting the picture of a nation at the end of the pandemic during his State of the Union address, lawmakers have unilaterally decided to end large-scale mitigation measures. But for service workers across industries who come into contact with hundreds of people daily, the decision may be premature, and many are concerned it could precede another variant or surge.
Almost all states have lifted their state-wide mask mandates, except for Hawai’i, whose indoor mask mandate is scheduled to expire on March 26. Even cities and states that have been especially strict with mask and vaccine mandates have ended the requirements. California, the first state in the nation to issue a stay-at-home order in March 2020, lifted all indoor mask requirements even for unvaccinated people beginning March 1. On March 11, they also lifted all school mask mandates, which has caused concern amongst families. New York, which likewise had some of the stricter statewide COVID-19 policies, already lifted its vaccine-or-mask mandate for businesses in February 2022. However, some businesses have decided to maintain the mandate.
In Philadelphia, city officials first lifted the vaccine mandate for indoor establishments that serve food on Feb 16. Weeks later, on March 2, they lifted the indoor mask mandate as well, and school masking rules were lifted on March 9, with the caveat that students must wear masks the week after returning from spring break. According to city Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole, the decision comes after they recalculated the percent positivity rate, which is now at 1.1%. Previously, it only included PCR tests; the new calculation included data received from rapid and other tests.
Bettigole added that mask mandates are not necessary given the availability of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, but the decision ignores immunocompromised people and children under 5 years old who still aren’t eligible for vaccination. Renee Miller, who is the assistant manager at a high-volume hair salon in Philadelphia and is immunocompromised, says there is a sense of nervousness in the air. Businesses in Philadelphia are allowed to decide whether or not to require their clients to wear masks, but Miller’s salon has decided to follow the city requirements. Miller has multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves. While she says the MS itself does not necessarily make her more high risk, she takes a B cell-depleting medication that does. Miller is vaccinated and boosted, but her doctors have told her they still don’t know how protected she would be if she did get the virus.
“I’d rather just wear the mask,” Miller said. “I’ve been doing it for 10 hours a day for almost a year and a half now; it doesn’t bother me. I always have a mask on.”
Miller, who sees up to 60 people a day at the front desk, says the salon had always taken COVID-19 mitigation procedures very seriously. The sudden shift to lift the mandate came as a surprise. She said clients immediately started arriving without masks at all, but she and her colleagues will continue to wear theirs out of a sense of precaution.
“We felt safe for so long because we were masked the whole time,” Miller said. “Now, having to walk in and see that more than half the people don’t have masks on, we started to get nervous again.”
In New Orleans, the mask mandate was lifted on March 3, and the vaccine mandate is expected to be lifted soon. The news came two days after the week-long Mardi Gras festival, which drives thousands of locals and tourists to the streets and bars for celebration. New Orleans-based epidemiologist and data analyst Gabrielle Perry, says the timing could not be worse since COVID-19 has a median incubation period of five days.
“They are dropping mandates the week after Mardi Gras, the largest state holiday we have where literally over 1 million tourists have just left this city,” Perry said. “No one is wearing a mask at Mardi Gras, it is a mass superspreader event, and it will inevitably cause a surge afterwards.”
Christopher Romaguera is a bartender at The Spotted Cat Music Club, a famed jazz club outside the French Quarter, which is intimate yet heavily frequented, especially during Mardi Gras. According to Romaguera, who has bartended at the club since 2013, their capacity maxes out at 250 and he sees thousands of people a weekend. Romaguera says he will continue to wear his mask because he is in constant contact with so many people who are no longer masking.
“I will keep wearing my mask because I knew a lot of people who got COVID, and I had people who died from it earlier,” Romaguera said. “I’d prefer if people were more careful and more diligent with masks and just be vaccinated already, but as a bartender, there are less points of conflict if I don’t have to police who is masked indoors.”
Romaguera says many people get sick after Mardi Gras, what he calls the “Mardi Gras crud.”
“It’s common for us to get sick after Mardi Gras because of the amount of drinking, partying, lack of sleep,” Romaguera said. “We will have to wait and see what the numbers look like.”
New Orleans tourist season is in full swing, with Jazz Fest, Essence Fest, and other festivals happening within the next three months, drawing thousands of tourists to the city.
“Service workers may as well be first responders putting their lives at risk out here because that’s how they survive,” Perry said. “Now they officially have no protection. It’s literally every person for themselves.”
According to Perry, public health communication has been incredibly effective in allowing politicians to mislead the public into thinking that COVID mitigations are a one-or-the-other deal.
“Masking, vaccinations, booster shots, and social distancing all need to be done in tandem to be effective,” Perry said. “Otherwise, the spread of the pathogen is going to continue, and more variants with the power to override our current vaccines will continue to pop up.”
The decision to lift mitigation mandates comes after two years of protocols that have left many people experiencing a sense of burnout. While COVID-19 still exists and the pandemic declaration is still in effect, many people want to believe the country is at the end of the battle. But, epidemiologists insist the only way to get there is to continue following mitigation protocols. Perry would like to see stronger dissemination of information in a way that people can digest.
“I do feel like we are in a better place now than we were before,” Miller said. “I’m also just so tired and beaten down. I definitely feel that burnout even though I’m very vigilant about everything I do because I have to be.”
Miller and Romaguera hope that if cases surge again, politicians will reinstate mask and vaccine mandates.