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Nation & World

Vaccinated Residents Start To Remove Masks As Washington State Sees 4th COVID-19 Wave

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many Americans are still making sense of a surprising announcement from the CDC that vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in most indoor settings. A handful of governors are now adopting that approach. Will Stone brings us the reaction from Washington state.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: In Seattle, masking still tends to be ubiquitous, even outside. Walking along the beach this weekend, Angie Kamel says she's just now adjusting to the idea of not wearing one.

ANGIE KAMEL: I had mine on for a while.

JEN KAMEL: (Laughter).

A KAMEL: And then I took it off.

STONE: Next to her is Jen Kamel.

J KAMEL: I told her she could take it off. She's like, I don't know if I'm ready.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mama.

STONE: Both of them have very mixed feelings.

A KAMEL: Turning on a dime and just stopping wearing masks, even if I'm vaccinated, just feels - it just feels very sudden.

STONE: Sudden because it seems like Governor Jay Inslee is always wearing a face mask. But on the very same day the CDC changed its mask guidance, Inslee followed suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY INSLEE: I'm taking my mask off here.

STONE: Washington is among several states that no longer require vaccinated people to wear masks in most indoor settings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INSLEE: Look at people who have been annoyed by this mask as a really good reason to get vaccinated. This is a ticket to freedom.

STONE: There are exceptions, like on public transit or in a health care setting. And an individual business can require face masks if it wants. But Dr. Jeff Duchin, the health officer for Public Health - Seattle and King County, says.

JEFF DUCHIN: My preference would have been to hold off a bit until we had higher vaccination coverage and lower disease rates.

STONE: The Seattle Metro is still at substantial COVID risk, and there are pockets of the city where vaccination rates are much lower.

DUCHIN: And we probably need to assume there will be unvaccinated people without masks in most indoor public settings going forward.

STONE: This is the prevailing fear. How can you be sure unvaccinated people will follow the rules and wear masks? University of Washington epidemiologist Janet Baseman says the science behind the CDC's guidance is sound. Vaccinated people are at extremely low risk of getting COVID or transmitting the virus. But she was relieved that the store she was in the other day still required masks.

JANET BASEMAN: Because I was there with one of my children who is not vaccinated, and I would like to have as high level of protection for him and others like him.

STONE: East of Seattle in rural Kittitas County, health officer Dr. Mark Larson says the governor's decision was premature.

MARK LARSON: What it did was gave the indication to people that the pandemic is over.

STONE: Larson says cases are high there, and it's already hard to get the public to wear masks.

LARSON: We don't see the incentive. Most of the folks that are not really wanting to be vaccinated have probably not already been wearing masks.

STONE: Back on the beach in Seattle, Javier Reyna is walking his dog. He's fully vaccinated and happy to lose his mask.

JAVIER REYNA: If you're not vaccinated, you want to take a risk, that's your problem. I did what I was supposed to do.

STONE: But nearby, the line to get vaccinated stretches down the block. Lora Radford leads the Neighborhood Business Association here. Many are asking her about the new facemask rules.

LORA RADFORD: Yes, the businesses were thrown for a loop.

STONE: But she's encouraged that so far, most people walking around here don't seem to have changed their behavior.

RADFORD: So even independent of what the CDC or Fauci or Governor Inslee says, I still think we're also going to lean into caution. Ask people to keep masked up for now.

STONE: That may not be hard in a pro-mask place like Seattle. It's just getting over a fourth wave of COVID-19. But mask etiquette could change as more adults get their shot.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "HEDRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.