Walking around downtown Salt Lake City without a face mask now that new federal guidelines say they’re no longer needed in most situations for Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 “feels like coming back to life,” retired library supervisor Sharee Birrell said Friday.

Birrell said she and her husband, Andrew, a retired physician assistant, have carefully followed the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even after Utah lifted its statewide mask mandate on April 10, but were ready to set aside the face coverings.

“I feel totally comfortable not wearing the mask. We protected ourselves during the time we needed to. The only people we could protect is ourselves,” Sharee Birrell said. “Ever since we got vaccinated, my husband has said, ‘We’re vaccinated, why should we wear masks?’ It’s time.”

The West Valley City couple did have masks on during their TRAX ride downtown, she said, since face coverings are still required on public transportation, including planes, buses and trains. And they’ll continue to put them on when asked to do so in stores or other places.

But on Friday, the couple were maskless as they headed for their weekly hike in City Creek Canyon.

“It was kind of nice, I have to admit, after about 14 months,” Sharee Birrell said.

The new guidelines issued Thursday say fully vaccinated Americans “can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic,” including indoors, without wearing a mask or social distancing unless federal, state or local authorities, or private businesses, say otherwise.

Mikayla Melchert, left, Kinzie Hague and Taylor Brockhoff go maskless in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 14, 2021.
Mikayla Melchert, left, Kinzie Hague and Taylor Brockhoff go maskless in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 14, 2021. Federal guidelines say masks are no longer needed in most situations for Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A law passed earlier this year by the Utah Legislature ended not only the statewide mask mandate last month but more recently other COVID-19 related restrictions, except for the mask requirement in K-12 schools. Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday that will end early, in the final days of the school year.

Some government entities and businesses kept a mask mandate in place beyond April, and in addition to public transportation around the country, masks will still have to be worn by everyone, vaccinated or not, in health care facilities and congregant settings such as prisons and homeless shelters.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has amended her executive order requiring masks to be worn in city facilities to exclude those who are fully vaccinated, although city employees will be encouraged to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson smiles while not wearing a mask during a press conference at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 14, 2021. County officials announced fully vaccinated people can go without masks in county-owned facilities. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In Salt Lake County, Mayor Jenny Wilson also said the fully vaccinated won’t need masks in county facilities but pointed out in a message to county employees that “wearing them continues to offer health benefits” and that they “should respect the decisions of others regarding face coverings.”

State employees were told earlier this week the mask mandate in state government facilities ends Saturday.

Hesitancy about vaccines may keep Utah from reaching herd immunity

It takes two weeks after receiving the final dose of a vaccine to be considered fully vaccinated, and two of the three vaccines approved for use in the United States require two doses up to 28 days apart. In Utah, just over 34% of the entire population is fully vaccinated, and 42.3% of those eligible for the shots, now anyone 12 and older.

The new CDC guidelines are widely seen as a way to boost those numbers.

“The guidelines are an incentive to get vaccinated. The benefits of vaccination include significantly more opportunities to enjoy activities in a much more normal way than we’ve been able to in a long time,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician.

Still, Webb said there are circumstances where even someone who is fully vaccinated may still want to mask up. Someone who is overweight or has a medical condition like diabetes may not be as protected by the vaccine, he said, so that person, as well as those around them, may want the “extra layer of precaution” a mask provides.

The same may be true in large indoor gatherings where some people may not be fully vaccinated, Webb said.

He said the CDC’s shift is not based on new scientific findings about the virus but on what’s seen as a need to move toward personal responsibility for dealing with its risks while at the same time offering “some clear reward” so more people will get the shots.

“That does come with some degree of compromise or concession with respect to the full benefits of everyone wearing masks in all situations. Because that level of extreme caution, I think, is off-putting to many who are on the fence about vaccination. And vaccination still remains our singular tool for returning to full normal,” Webb said.

The doctor said he’ll follow the new guidelines himself, calling them positive.

“I don’t plan to be more conservative than the CDC because I think it’s important to also set the tone that as a society, we are dipping our toes into new water, so to speak, right now. And we’re going to have to figure out how to make this transition work,” he said.

Dr. Thomas Miller, University of Utah Health chief medical officer, said not everyone will be ready to give up their masks.

“There are a number of people who may at this point feel more secure even though they’re vaccinated, and they’re shopping or inside, wearing a mask. And that’s OK. That’s not a problem. There may be some concern about public shaming, perhaps, but if people feel more comfortable even if vaccinated wearing a mask, that’s up to them,” he said.

What is more important is showcasing the pluses of vaccination, Miller said, although the public won’t know whether someone who is not wearing a mask has actually gotten the shots or not.

“It’s based on trust, It’s based on freedom of choice, and I think that’s how it’s going to have to be. I think the CDC is trying to say, ‘If you are vaccinated you will be safe without wearing a mask,’” he said, sending a message to those who aren’t vaccinated that they aren’t fully protected and should wear a mask.

“We’re basing this on the public’s willingness to do the right thing. We’re appealing to the individual’s sense of social duty to protect those around us, to pay attention and say, ‘If I’m not vaccinated I should still wear a mask until I get vaccinated,’” Miller said.

He said the new guidance is “a big relief” and a sign things are slowly getting better.

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“If you’re vaccinated and the news now is there’s, for the most part, a very high likelihood you’re fine, you’re safe, you’re not going to get infected and if you do, it’s going to be a mild infection, most people accept that risk, want to take that risk and are happy to drop the mask,” Miller said.

A woman walks with a mask outside of Trader Joe’s in Utah.
Susan Holding Rosetta leaves Trader Joe’s in Cottonwood Heights after shopping on Friday, May 14, 2021. Trader Joe’s is one of the first stores to drop the mask requirement for fully vaccinated customers. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Susan Holding-Rosetta, of Midvale, said she’s not ready to give up her mask even though she’s been fully vaccinated for several months.

“I’m so hip on wearing a mask, and I have masks with sequins,” the 72-year-old said after shopping at a grocery store and getting her hair done. “I feel a little bit more secure, for the percentage of people in Utah who haven’t gotten the vaccine. I just feel like for me, I want to be pretty safe and I think it’s just kind of a habit now to wear it.”

She said she’s aware of the new guidelines but “wants to give it a little more time. Maybe September.”

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