I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
The mask wars aren’t over.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed mask guidance, saying fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask in most cases.
But many plan to continue anyway.
This week, retail reporter Kelly Tyko asked our readers: If you are fully vaccinated, will you still wear a mask shopping even if not required? About 60% of the 541 respondents said yes.
Currently, 37.8% of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated. That rises to 47.9% of people 18 and older, and 73% of those 65 and older.
The CDC recommends unvaccinated people continue to wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“I don’t trust other people with being honest about their health,” wrote a reader from Santa Clara, California. “And I don’t want COVID under any circumstance.”
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the agency’s guidance changed as more studies showed vaccines protect more than 90% of recipients against any symptoms of COVID-19, prevent nearly all serious disease and death, and even block most asymptomatic cases.
Even though the risks are low, readers said they are worried about breakthrough infections and variants, and protecting children who can’t get vaccinated and those with weakened immune systems for whom the vaccine may be less effective.
“Using the honor system doesn’t work,” a reader from Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, wrote. “People who have refused to wear a mask from the beginning are the ones who aren’t getting vaccinated and continue to go out in public. There’s no way to know if the person standing next to you without a mask has been vaccinated.”
Nation reporter Grace Hauck looked into the honor system this week. She found most experts aren’t hopeful.
Michael McCullough, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, told her the new guidance will enable unvaccinated people to flout rules with “impunity.”
“Many will lie. Many are lying, have been lying,” he said. “In some ways, this is a really perfect recipe for lots of people to be dishonest about whether they got vaccinated.”
Of course, some without masks don’t think they are “lying” if they go maskless indoors, as they haven’t believed in or followed CDC guidance from the start.
Adding to the confusion: Scores of retail stores dropped their mask requirements, but added “unless required by state or local regulations.”
That caveat led to a tense encounter at a Los Angeles Costco over the weekend. Ricky Schroder, the former “Silver Spoons” and “NYPD Blue” star, confronted a store employee asking why he wasn’t allowed inside unmasked. Schroder posted a video of the exchange on his Facebook page Saturday.
The employee said Costco had dropped its mask requirement, but California had not yet, and they were following state guidelines. California has announced it won’t drop its mask rules until June 15.
And store policies may differ. For example, Apple has said its U.S. retail stores will continue to require masks while the company continues to evaluate health guidance.
“You could be in the same mall and you might need it in certain situations,” but not in others, Tyko said. “That gets confusing.”
Some parents are also confused by the CDC guidance. Others told nation reporter Christine Fernando they feel left behind.
Speaking about the relaxed mask guidelines, “for me, it wasn’t a time to celebrate,” said Janie Able, a mother of two 7-year-old girls in Omaha, Nebraska. “My husband and I are vaccinated, but what about my children?”
“I absolutely don’t trust people to do what’s right and wear their masks if they’re not vaccinated,” she said. “And that’s going to put my children at risk.”
As of May 19, there have been 3.2 million cases of COVID-19 in children, according to the CDC. That is about 12% of cases. But statistics show hospitalization and death are uncommon in children. As of Wednesday, there had been 390 deaths of children from COVID-19. The percentage of deaths for 0- to 4-year-olds is less than 0.1%; for 5- to 17-year-olds, it’s 0.1%.
“The chances of a child contracting and spreading the virus is a lot lower than it is for adults,” said Cole Beeler, medical director of infection prevention at IU Health University Hospital. “Children just haven’t been affected in the same way older people have.”
But he told Fernando that he recognizes the concerns of parents with young children.
“As a parent, you have to do what you feel is best to protect your children and that may mean still keeping restrictions in place on what you go out and do with your children,” Beeler said. “All of this is weighing risks and benefits for you as a family.”
Louie Villalobos in an editor in our opinion section. He’s also dad to an 8-year-old autistic son who has difficulty sticking to strict spatial and distancing rules.
“So what do we do now? What are parents supposed to do in a world where the metrics tell us our young children are probably fine to mingle with the un-vaccinated, but the past year and a half tells us, not yet.”
Readers told us the same.
“My husband and I are both fully vaccinated, but we have children too young to receive the vaccine,” wrote Erin Eilskov, 43, mom to two kids ages 10 and 8. “While the risk of them contracting a serious case of COVID-19 is low, there is still a chance. Wearing a mask seems like such a small task to help keep them safe. Plus, I wouldn’t want to confuse them by forcing them to wear a mask in a store, but me not do it.”
So the mask skirmishes continue, from Costco to the floor of Congress, where Tuesday a group of House Republicans refused to wear masks indoors as required. Three were fined $500 each.
Health editor Jennifer Portman has been covering the conflict from the start.
“I’m concerned that the CDC doing this may have created more confusion at a time when we didn’t really need to have more confusion,” she said.
“It’s just sowing more deep division between the masked and the maskless.”
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.