After the C.D.C. advised masking indoors in areas with high rates of Covid-19, some locales went back under mask mandates. But there was also defiance and hostility.
July 28, 2021, 5:47 p.m. ET
MIAMI — Even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this week that vaccinated Americans in coronavirus hot spots around the country go back to wearing face coverings indoors, a resistance had been building against any new masking requirements, no matter the resurgence of infections.
Hours before the C.D.C.’s announcement on Tuesday, the school board in Broward County, Fla., postponed a meeting on back-to-school protection rules after a small crowd of mask-less adults and children showed up to the lobby of the school district headquarters and got into a tense exchange with masked members of the local teachers’ union.
In Missouri, where rampant Covid-19 has once again flooded hospitals, St. Louis County reinstated a mask mandate on Monday, ahead of the C.D.C.’s updated advice — only to face a lawsuit hours later from Eric Schmitt, the state’s Republican attorney general, who accused the county of “unacceptable and unconstitutional” overreach.
By Tuesday night, the St. Louis County Council, meeting in a packed chamber where a woman was hoisting a sign that read, “STOP THE TYRANNY,” had voted to overturn the mandate, though the measure’s fate may ultimately be decided by the courts.
“You asked us to stay home,” Rita Heard Days, the council chairwoman, told the director of the county’s public health department before voting to lift the mask mandate. “You asked us to put on masks. You asked us to stay six feet apart,” she said. “We have followed your orders, and yet we are still in a predicament. So something is not working.”
The virus has changed, Dr. Faisal Khan, the public health director, told her.
The surging virus, fueled by the more contagious Delta variant, has led the C.D.C. to respond with guidance that harked back to a year ago, when many state and local officials were imposing mask mandates. And on Thursday, President Biden is expected to announce that all civilian federal employees must be vaccinated or forced to submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and travel restrictions.
But after months of shutdowns and with three vaccines available to protect Americans, those trying to get people to wear face coverings again in the middle of a long, hot summer are encountering defiance and hostility.
Four Republican governors, Greg Abbott of Texas, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Brian Kemp of Georgia and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, signaled their opposition to the recommendation.
Nine states — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — had already banned or limited face mask mandates, leaving cities and counties with few options to fight the virus spread.
The South Carolina Department of Education cited the state’s ban and said its public schools would not adopt the C.D.C. mask recommendations.
Even in Washington State, where tough virus restrictions last year enjoyed substantial public backing, there appeared to be scant support for stepped-up masking now.
“Everybody has access to vaccines in our country at the moment, and so I think that if people are not taking advantage of that, it’s poor personal decision-making,” said State Senator Mark Mullet, a Democrat.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, urged all residents to follow the federal guidelines and announced that mask requirements in schools would remain. He suggested that the state could require vaccinations for eligible students if rates do not increase.
Some states and cities moved quickly to adopt the C.D.C.’s recommendations. Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Mo., reinstated a mask mandate. Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada, a Democrat, ordered that residents of counties with high rates of transmission — including Clark County, home to Las Vegas — wear masks in public indoor spaces starting on Friday.
The Illinois Department of Public Health recommended masks for everyone in places with rampant infections, and in California, with more than 90 percent of the state facing substantial or high transmission rates, state health officials on Wednesday recommended masking in all public indoor settings, though they stopped short of a mandate.
Private companies, too, were moving to impose mask rules. MGM Resorts International said it would require all visitors to wear masks in indoor public areas beginning on Friday. And Apple told employees it was reinstating mask requirement for everyone indoors in certain U.S. offices, according to an internal memo obtained by The New York Times. Apple also announced it would require employees and customers, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks in about half its U.S. stores.
For other businesses the surge in virus cases has complicated plans for returning workers to their desks. Google said on Wednesday that it was pushing back its official return date to Oct. 18 from September — following a similar announcement from Apple — and would require returning workers to be vaccinated.
Los Angeles County was the first major county to revert to requiring everyone to wear masks indoors in public spaces last week.
“It’s an inconvenience and it’s annoying,” said Tina Kim, 40, who sat on the outdoor patio of a Mexican restaurant in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles on Tuesday night. “But I don’t think there is a reliable way of filtering who is vaccinated when you walk into a store. It’s just easier for everyone to put it back on.”
The C.D.C. recommended that people wear masks indoors in counties with substantial or high infection rates, or more than 50 new cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period. By that measure, all residents of Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana should wear masks indoors. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. counties qualify, many of them concentrated in the South.
In some counties, the rate is now more than 300 new cases per 100,000 people, said Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director.
The patchwork of regulations has created a confusing landscape where masks are strictly enforced on airplanes, required and mostly worn on public transportation systems like the New York City subway, and left off completely inside supermarkets, movie theaters and gyms in much of the South.
The most effective public health guidelines are those that are simple, clear and applied consistently, said Gretchen Chapman, a professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. She said it would help for leaders to set criteria so that people might know, for example, that reaching a certain threshold of infection would trigger measures such as masking.
“When the weather turns cold, people say, ‘Ugh, now I have to bundle up with a scarf and coat every time I have to go out.’ We may complain that the cold weather is back, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it,” Dr. Chapman said. “Nobody is going to be happy that you have to wear a mask again, but if we could say, ‘These are the conditions again, it’s time,’ then there would not be a surprise when we get to the mask zone.”
State health departments have found themselves squeezed between a public tired of restrictions and a beleaguered medical establishment desperate to stem the exhausting crush of Covid-19 patients. This is particularly true in conservative-leaning states where politicians and their supporters tend to bash public health measures as an attack on freedom.
In Florida, which never had a statewide mask mandate and has seen a big rise in virus cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, made no mention of the C.D.C. guidelines at a news conference on Wednesday. (None of the officials present at the outdoor event wore a mask.) Last week, he had reiterated that asking people to cover their faces goes against the message that they needed to get a vaccine.
“I get a little bit frustrated when I see some of these jurisdictions saying, ‘Even if you’re healthy and vaccinated, you must wear a mask because we’re seeing increased cases,’” he said on July 21. “Understand what that message is sending to people who aren’t vaccinated: It’s telling them that the vaccines don’t work. I think that’s the worst message that you can send to people at this time.”
On Wednesday, though, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced an indoor mask requirement for all county-operated facilities in Miami-Dade County and a strong recommendation for masks in all large crowds or close spaces. “We have all come too far,” she said. “We have all sacrificed too much in this past almost year-and-a-half. We cannot turn back now.”
Most of the recent friction over face coverings in Florida has centered on whether to require masks in schools, as most did last school year. Mr. DeSantis has been adamant in his opposition: On Monday, he held a private discussion with friendly panelists who were uniformly against the idea, including one who insisted that masking children amounted to “abuse.”
On Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, the Broward County school board postponed its masking policy workshop after the building lobby filled with people like Chris Nelson, a 38-year-old D.J. who has no children in the school system but has become an activist for reopening the economy. His T-shirt read, “NOT VACCINATED.”
“They were going to decide today whether they were going to continue to suffocate children with masks,” he said. He referred to the C.D.C. as the “Clown Disease Center” and dismissed its guidance: “We all know what that means: masks in the shower, swimming pools, the ocean.”
Outside, he and others staged a mask burning — his sixth or seventh of the pandemic, he said.
But the C.D.C.’s latest recommendation made many other parents in Florida feel relief and hope. The guidelines could give cover to local school boards that would like to require masks but fear defying the governor.
“I think our biggest problem as a state is that the governor is fighting with the schools about letting the schools have the mask mandates, which of course are the school districts’ decision,” said Marla Bryant, who has a 16-year-old daughter in Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville.
Ms. Bryant created a Facebook group last year bringing together parents to push for public health measures, including masking. Some of them held a pro-masking rally outside the school district headquarters on Sunday.
“In Jacksonville, we’ve seen our hospitals fill up,” said Matt Hartley, a former teacher who has two children, ages 12 and 10, in the school system. “Just the thought of any kid — whether it’s my kid or anyone else’s — would end up in the hospital with Covid, or would end up with long Covid symptoms, is so awful.”
As they rallied, a few anti-mask demonstrators arrived and staged a counterprotest.
Reporting was contributed by Ana Facio-Krajcer, Neil MacFarquhar, Jesus Jiménez, Kellen Browning and Kristine White. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.