To mask or not to mask? New rules in Illinois and Chicago raise new questions for residents, from doctors to schoolteachers.

·6 min read

To mask or not to mask?

That’s the question for many vaccinated people after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised their guidance on where people need to wear masks, saying that those who are two weeks past their vaccines can mostly return to pre-pandemic activities without masks.

Following those recommendations, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced new guidelines that put Illinois in line with the new federal guidance. In Chicago, which has at times maintained separate rules from the state throughout COVID-19, public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday that fully vaccinated people can go maskless in most settings, but some businesses will be strongly advised to maintain mask requirements.

According to that guidance, people who are fully vaccinated should still wear masks in health care settings or while riding trains, buses, planes or other forms of public transportation, as well as at airports, bus or train stations.

We asked people who live and work in different areas where they would and would not wear masks, and what they were considering as they made these decisions.

For now, Dr. Jeffrey Linder, Northwestern Medicine’s chief of general internal medicine and geriatrics, has a generally clear line. He plans on wearing a mask indoors and not wearing a mask outdoors.

“Outdoors is easier,” he said. “It has always seemed very low-risk to me and, since more data has come out about the effectiveness of vaccines, even lower risk.”

Echoing many who said something similar, he plans to wear a mask indoors not for him, but for others. He feels it is out of respect for people who for many reasons, whether because they have cancer or a compromised immune system or can’t get time off, haven’t been vaccinated yet. “Even though my risk of transmitting COVID to them is extremely low, they do not know that I’m vaccinated and could be concerned,” Linder said.

As overall case rates come down, he noted, the risk for everyone will go down. Still, he added, “I’m not sure I’ll ever get on the CTA again in the winter without a mask.”

Owners of businesses from restaurants to fitness studios have been scrambling to figure out how to respond to the updated guidance, balancing keeping customers happy and protecting their employees. Businesses must ensure all visitors can practice social distancing or encourage masks.

Deborah Rivera, owner of Ambrosia Euro-American Patisserie in Barrington, said she won’t be taking down the sign requiring masks any time soon. “I feel like it’s important to protect my staff when customers are ordering at our counter,” she said.

And she’ll keep wearing a face covering on errands to the store, the post office, Home Depot. “It seems like a common courtesy, whether you’re vaccinated or not.”

That’s similar to Eric Combs, a middle school teacher in Olney, Illinois, who plans to keep wearing a mask to the grocery store, although he knows he may be the only one. “Even though I have been vaccinated, and have had the virus, I know that I can still be a carrier.”

At home, with family, he doesn’t plan to wear a mask. But he’ll wear one where others are around — near others even outside, or in a restaurant walking to a table or interacting with a server.

For parents or teachers or others who will be around children under age 12, their inability to be vaccinated adds to the calculation.

Sonja Crum Knight, vice president of programs and impact for Carole Robertson Center for Learning,said staffers at their West Side programs will continue to wear masks, even as the majority of employees are vaccinated. “The bottom line for us is that children cannot yet be vaccinated,” she said, adding they “expect we’ll require masks for some time to come.”

Kristin Meekhof, a Michigan author and therapist, is fully vaccinated. But because her mother is immunocompromised, she will keep wearing a mask around people where she can’t be sure of their status.

Plus, now that she knows more about how masks can protect from other illnesses, too, like the flu, “I’m going to be using the mask as a preventative measure.”

Much of the new world might come down to how much we can trust others.

The CDC’s decision was not only a recommendation change but also a philosophical shift, said Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at the University of Chicago. It essentially changed the national philosophy from “none of us is safe until all of us is safe” to a more personal-protective approach, she said. Because vaccinated people are protected, they can loosen restrictions. But what about those who cannot be vaccinated, like those with health conditions that restrict vaccine options or children?

“You try to create a system based on what the most vulnerable need,” she said.

The new guidance might tempt people to lie, she said, creating situations where people can more easily avoid masks even if not vaccinated. “Have we made it so that people can harm themselves?” she asked.

For people mulling whether to wear masks around others, she said to think about it ethically is to think about the other person.

“The onus is what do I owe the other,” she said, “and what I owe the other is to wear a mask.” Absent a situation where someone looks at you and says, “I’ve been vaccinated,” she said, “the default should be that you should be wearing a mask around strangers because you don’t know and you want to protect them.”

As far as trusting that a stranger is being honest with their vaccination status, “I think our default should be that people are good and people are honest. But it’s a contagious disease that could kill you.”

She will be wearing her mask while indoors and around others, and outside when she sees someone else wearing a mask. “I want to signal that I’m in solidarity with those people who are not vaccinated,” she said, adding, “It’s no big deal to wear a mask.”

The most obvious ethical choice, she said, is to at least bring a mask. “It has to be readily available.”

Recently, Dr. June McKoy, associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, was sitting on a CTA bus when a masked man asked if he could sit on the seat next to her. It was the first time since the pandemic that she had been faced with a non-distanced seating request, and it startled her for a moment. She asked if he’d been vaccinated. He said yes, and she said yes. “I took a chance,” she said, that he was telling the truth.

She will keep her mask on in public places, knowing she can’t be sure of ventilation systems in, for example, a grocery store. She will eat in a restaurant where she is confident in the ventilation; her co-diners must be fully vaccinated. In the park, she’ll take her mask off, but if it gets congested, back on it will go.

As for any large family gatherings, she said, “I love my family, but until they are all fully vaccinated, they will not see my face anytime soon.”

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