Mask decisions largely now up to personal preference in Hampton Roads as mandates expire

Mask decisions largely now up to personal preference in Hampton Roads as mandates expire
·5 min read

A patchwork of masking requirements in Virginia have fallen away in recent days — including those in schools and on military installations — leaving the decision whether to wear a mask largely up to personal preference.

In downtown Norfolk this week, the once-ubiquitous signs advising customers to mask up inside shops and businesses were few and far between. Among those still requiring masks — a downtown spa, law office and ice cream shop.

Winston Sterling, strolling Thursday with friend Malik Lowry on Granby Street, had a mask in his pocket, which he said he’s ready to put on “every time I go inside.”

“I’ve had COVID before,” Sterling said. “It wasn’t pleasant.”

Lowry said he also masks in indoor public spaces, but in other situations, the decision hinges on how many people are in one place. Going into a crowd means masking, but Lowry said he’ll go without when walking outside downtown or spending time with family in the park.

More than half of respondents in a recent survey said they regularly wear a mask in public. But as the rate of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations has declined since the omicron-fueled surge of cases this winter, mask wearing among Virginians appears to be on the decline.

The survey, from the Delphi Group at Carnegie-Mellon University — which has been tracking pandemic-related behaviors since early April 2020 — found indoor public masking in Virginia has dropped in recent weeks. About 31% of survey respondents saw most people in public masked at the beginning of February, while 20% reported the same by the end of the month.

The percent of Virginians who reported wearing a mask in public also dropped. Sixty percent of survey respondents reported wearing a mask most or all of the time in public in the last seven days, as of Feb. 28 — down from 71% at the beginning of the month.

The drop is on par with the rest of the country, which experienced a similar decrease in self-reported masking, according to survey data.

The decline comes as the Virginia Department of Health reports the number of coronavirus hospitalizations and case counts have fallen from the omicron peak — though the average daily number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients remain at little less than quadruple the summer’s pandemic lows, according to Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association data. About 82% of the state’s adult population is fully vaccinated.

Most COVID restrictions were lifted in Virginia last May, with hope for an end to the pandemic buoyed by rising vaccination rates and dropping case counts.

Some lingering masking requirements have fallen away over the past week. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s repeal of a statewide masking mandate in K-12 schools took effect Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Navy eased its rules, saying masks are no longer required indoors at Hampton Roads installations.

“This is about getting back to normal, and Virginia we are on the way,” Youngkin said in a Fox News interview in February when he signed the bill.

New guidance from U.S. health officials also no longer recommends masking indoors for residents in areas defined with low “COVID-19 community levels” — that designation includes the seven cities of Hampton Roads. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the nonbinding guidelines Feb. 25.

Following the new guidelines, some cities, including Newport News and Hampton announced an end to mask requirements inside city buildings.

Not everyone was as eager to lift mask mandates, however. The Portsmouth School Board “desires to continue to require universal masking,” school board attorney Adam Carroll said during a Feb. 24 meeting. The district’s decision to make masks optional was made “regrettably and against its better judgment, solely to fill the new legal requirements,” Carroll said.

With the onus of face coverings now mostly on individuals and business owners, some Hampton Roads residents say they are taking social cues from others and factoring in other’s preferences.

“If I’m just running out to the store and there’s nobody wearing a mask — no, I’m not wearing one,” said Lynn Wayman, 46, who lives in Surry County and works on the Peninsula. “But if I’m going to a shop where somebody is more comfortable with me wearing a mask — sure OK, not a big deal.”

Yorktown resident Bill Townsley, 79, said he has “all the vaccinations” and is “ready to get another one at any time.” When it comes to masking up, he keeps an eye on others’ behavior and acts accordingly.

“If I go into Kroger and a lot of people are wearing their mask, then you know, a lot of people would be upset if I go without,” Townsley said.

He appreciates that social distancing mores have stuck around.

“The nice thing is most people — whether they’re wearing a mask or not — keep their social distance, is what I’ve seen happening at least,” he said.

Still, there are some places where face masks remain required in Hampton Roads.

Local universities — including Norfolk State and Old Dominion universities — require masks indoors. Hampton University requires masks in public spaces, according to its website.

Masks are also required on public transit. Enforcing a federal mandate, Hampton Roads Transit requires bus, ferry, and train passengers to wear face masks in transit centers and on board. The mandate, from the Transportation Security Administration, is in effect through March 18.

Staff writer Jessica Nolte contributed to this report

Ali Sullivan, 757-677-1974, ali.sullivan@virginiamedia.com