By Tim Reid, Brad Brooks and Maria Caspani
WASHINGTON/LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - New U.S. guidance allowing people to go without masks in most places provided one more topic of disagreement among Americans who have found little common ground throughout the pandemic.
Some cited caution and confusion, while others who have rarely worn masks rolled their eyes at the advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can mostly avoid wearing them indoors. The looser mask guidance does not apply to situations such as public transportation and prisons.
The CDC said the updated guidance would allow life to begin to return to normal and hopes it will prod more people to get vaccinated against an illness that has killed more than half a million Americans.
"I'm nervous about it," said a masked Allison Douma, 24, out walking her dogs in Washington, D.C. She was fully vaccinated last month. "I just don't feel safe because vaccination rates are going down, and I'm worried about the mutations," she said of more contagious virus variants widely circulating.
Over 1,600 miles (2,575 km) away in Lubbock, Texas - where Republican Governor Greg Abbott lifted a statewide mask mandate in March - the CDC guidelines were largely met with a shrug.
"I don't think masks worked as well in stopping the virus as the media would have you believe. People did not even wear them properly in the first place," said Riker Beauchamp, 20, a pizzeria worker in Lubbock.
Beauchamp, yet to be vaccinated, said he wore a mask if a business asked but did not where owners did not care. He accused liberals of fear mongering over the need to wear masks.
In many parts of the United States, people have not been wearing masks for months. A January survey by the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research found that even at a peak time for COVID-19 infections, half of Americans were not wearing masks when mixing with the public.
More states had relaxed mask mandates and other restrictions in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases dropped.
In New York City, Maggie Cantrick, 39, who works at an arts center, said she was not ready to shed her mask in places such as a grocery store. "I am fully vaccinated. I can just take off my mask? This is crazy!" she said.
U.S. supermarket chain Kroger Co said it will continue to require customers to wear masks, while it reviews current safety practices and the new CDC guidance.
Another food chain, Trader Joe's, said it would immediately drop its mask mandate for customers who are fully vaccinated.
With the new federal guidance, it will be up to people to decide how to protect themselves now that vaccines are readily available, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Friday.
"If you are vaccinated and you're making the decision to take off your mask ... you are safe. If you are unvaccinated, then you've made the decision to take that risk."
Unvaccinated people are still encouraged to get their shots to protect themselves and others against the coronavirus that is still circulating even as cases decline, she said.
'I'LL WEAR THE MASK'
Chuck Schutte, a 60-year-old retired electrical lineman drinking at the bar of the Ancient Mariner pub and restaurant in Ridgefield, Connecticut on Friday, said he had no immediate plans to get vaccinated.
"I think it (vaccine development) was rushed and I see people have side effects," Schutte said. "I'm not going to say I'm not going to get vaccinated but I'm definitely not doing it right away. I'll wear the mask."
Jeri Kelly, who was visiting Washington, DC, from Portland, Oregon on Friday, said she was concerned about being able to identify whether someone was vaccinated.
"So, to go into a public space, to be less than six feet distance, because I'm vaccinated, I am just concerned that the next person, how honest are they going to be?" she said as she and her husband headed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Dr. Walid Gellad, a professor at University of Pittsburgh's medical school, said he believed the CDC guidance came two or three weeks too early.
"The problem is that there's no mechanism to identify who's vaccinated. So, someone's going to be in a store. No one's going to be wearing masks, and some of those people will be unvaccinated - that's just the reality," Gellad said.
Ahmad Erfani, 70, who runs Le Caprice bakery in Washington, said he would still ask indoor customers to keep their masks on. "You don't know who is or isn't vaccinated," he said.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Caroline Humer, Tim Reid, Julia Harte, Maria Caspani, Jeff Mason, Brad Brooks, Lisa Baertlein, Nathan Layne, Deborah Lutterbeck, Gershon Peaks, Julio-Cesar Chavez, Aishwarya Venugopal, Hilary Russ, David Shepardson and Michael Erman; Editing by Donna Bryson, Alistair Bell and Bill Berkrot)