Georgians, businesses reconsider routines as CDC loosens COVID rules

Madeline Raskay, right, and Aldany Diaz, third from left, wear face masks while walking along the Atlanta BeltLine in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community, Friday, May 14, 2021. Both of them say they are fully vaccinated but still prefer to wear face masks in while out in public. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Madeline Raskay, right, and Aldany Diaz, third from left, wear face masks while walking along the Atlanta BeltLine in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community, Friday, May 14, 2021. Both of them say they are fully vaccinated but still prefer to wear face masks in while out in public. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Had it been Thursday, Adrienne Grzeskiewicz would have arrived at the Great Harvest Bread Co. in Milton wearing a mask. But Friday was different.

Less than 24 hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention significantly relaxed COVID-19 guidelines for vaccinated Americans, Grzeskiewicz had shed her face covering.

“It’s liberating,” said Grzeskiewicz, who is vaccinated. “It is just a little more comfortable to be out.”

Georgians spent Friday navigating the new rules of public life as they tried to work out their own calculus about risk, relief, comfort and good manners. Though some had ditched their face coverings long ago, others unmasked indoors at restaurants and stores for the first time in more than a year.

“It’s a turning point,” said Ash Navi, the manager of Luxe Jewelers at the Mall of Georgia.

“But,” he said, with a mask looped around one ear, “you are still in the practice of it. You are still in the emotion of it.”

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On Thursday, the Atlanta-based CDC said that fully inoculated people no longer need to wear masks or socially distance in most indoor and outdoor locations unless it’s required by law or local businesses.

The surprise announcement seemed to catch many public officials off guard, and some business owners scrambled to reassess their coronavirus safety policies in light of it. Though Gov. Brian Kemp never required masks statewide, a number of cities and counties have instituted their own mandates.

Some businesses were quick to shed their old rules. Trader Joe’s said it would allow vaccinated customers to shop without masks. Atlanta United announced it would ditch its mask requirement for most fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and increase capacity at its upcoming game against Montreal on Saturday. A spokeswoman for the Atlanta Braves said the team is evaluating the new CDC guidelines and will most likely have details on Monday.

The High Museum of Art will admit people who have received the vaccine into most galleries without masks, a spokesperson said.

Yet, illustrating just how difficult following the new policy may be, the High said it would not ask guests to prove they had been fully vaccinated and instead would rely on the “personal responsibility” of each visitor.

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Companies have broad latitude to set their own rules for workers and customers in their businesses, though they must still follow guidelines from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“‘Give me a while to digest this’” was the response that Ryan Pernice gave to employees of RO Hospitality. His restaurants include Osteria Mattone and Table & Main in Roswell and Coalition Food & Beverage in Alpharetta. Pernice said that he is not only weighing safety factors, but legal ramifications.

“Let’s see what we’re getting into before we make a knee-jerk change,” he said.

Several major companies, including Home Depot and Kroger, said they didn’t have immediate plans to change their mask requirements for workers and customers. The latter is incentivizing workers to get the COVID vaccine by offering $100 bonuses.

“As we have throughout the pandemic, we are reviewing current safety practices, the CDC’s latest guidance, and soliciting feedback from associates to guide the next phase of our policy,” Kroger spokesman Felix Turner said.

Mike Gallagher — co-owner of Brick Store and Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, as well as Good Word Brewing in Duluth — said he’s trying to weigh “what’s safe and better” for employees and customers, along with the CDC guidance and state and local regulations, before making any changes. Taking into account the comfort level of customers is also important, he said.

“That’s been the toughest thing: the fear,” Gallagher said. “Whether it’s real or not, the anxiety can’t be argued. It exists, and it’s the worst.”

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Indeed, some Georgians said they did not plan on shedding their COVID safety precautions even with the CDC-sanctioned changes. Some pointed to Georgia’s relatively low vaccination rate – not quite one-third of the state’s population is fully inoculated – as well as widespread vaccine hesitancy. One in four Georgians don’t plan on getting the vaccine, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted earlier this month.

Stockbridge Mayor Pro Tem Elton Alexander said that, while he is fully vaccinated, he will continue to wear his mask inside buildings because of the continued threat of COVID-19. He said 22 people have died from COVID-19 in Henry County over the past four weeks, a sign the virus is still very deadly.

Alexander asked his constituents their thoughts about the new guidance on a Facebook page he operates. Most said they, too, will continue masking up.

“How would you know if someone else is fully vaccinated or not?” he said. “How can you verify that? I’m comfortable with the guidance as far as outside, but inside still concerns me.”

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Georgia has rarely enforced its coronavirus restrictions over the last year. A spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol said in April that the office had issued only 21 citations for violating COVID rules in response to more than 3,400 calls since the beginning of the pandemic.

On Friday, multiple unions representing retail, grocery store and other workers warned their members would once again be put on the front lines for enforcing COVID safety.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, retail workers were required to be the mask police. They were verbally abused and, in some cases, physically abused by some of the customers that resented the implementation of the masking policy,” Marc Perrone, president of the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said on CNN. “Now you really don’t know whether or not somebody has been vaccinated ... And you’re going to change (workers) from the mask police to the vaccination police?”

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The CDC is still recommending that people wear masks while visiting health care facilities, riding public transportation or traveling.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport confirmed that masks will still be required “until further notice.” The Transportation Security Administration recently extended President Joe Biden’s mask requirement in airports through Sept. 13.

At Truist Park, a family donned paper masks as they got out of the car and prepared to enter the retail section. The crowd walking the district sported masks, some pulled down as they wandered in the open air, but nearly all slipped them up as they entered businesses.

“Certainly, I will continue to carry one with me and continue to wear it on a day-to-day basis, based on a gut feeling,” said Jason Hugues, who had stopped by El Super Pan with his parents to pick up food. “It’s common sense.”

In Gwinnett, many retailers still had signs posted that urged or required customers to wear masks, including Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and others. Walmart has announced it will no longer require vaccinated workers and shoppers to wear masks in stores and warehouses unless a municipality requires it. That policy goes into effect for workers on Tuesday, while vaccinated customers can shop maskless immediately.

At a Best Buy in Gwinnett, a worker was stationed at a table by the entrance with a bowl of free masks ready to offer guests. At VIP Nails & Spa, workers and customers were still wearing masks Friday and a manager said the shop’s masking policy remains in place.

“You are still not completely free,” said Charlie Hodge, a fully vaccinated shopper from Flowery Branch as he headed to the Barnes & Noble at the Mall of Georgia with his mask already on. It was his first trip back to the mall since the pandemic began.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said. “I’m just so used to it now.”

Staff writers Michael E. Kanell, Rosalind Bentley, Leon Stafford, Ligaya Figueras, Christopher Quinn, Kelly Yamanouchi, Helena Oliviero, Yamil Berard and Sarah K. Spencer contributed to this article.

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