America's new approach to masks is even more scattershot than before


In grocery stores and pizza joints, main streets and downtowns across the country, pandemic precautions range wildly — from nonexistent to 2020 deja vu.

The big picture: As COVID-19 cases surge, especially in states with low vaccination rates, the country is once again in the throes of a fraught cultural and political debate over face masks.

  • The CDC's updated guidance this week that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas with substantial or high transmission was met with a mix of acceptance, frustration and indignation.
  • Here's a snapshot of how things are playing out in local communities:
Northwest Arkansas

Arkansas has one of the highest case rates in the country right now, and there's a noticeable increase in the number of masks being worn in Northwest Arkansas.

  • Yes, but: It's nowhere near as common as it was in the winter. Attitudes about wearing them are mixed; most people are just fed up with having to be careful and ready to return to normal life.

Alex Golden reports: I am hearing from some friends that they are starting to resume mask-wearing and pulling back from eating inside restaurants again because of the Delta variant.

  • But I seriously doubt most people are going back to wearing masks everywhere and staying home. This week, I picked up a pizza in Jane, Missouri and saw no workers or customers wearing masks.
  • Meanwhile, a Facebook post that's been circulating from a beloved bookstore in downtown Fayetteville says the business will require masks inside the store "until the Covid numbers start improving in Arkansas."
Charlotte

North Carolinians, regardless of zip code or political stripes, ditched masks and flooded the beaches this summer. But as cases climb to their highest levels since February, there's a familiar tension between urban and rural areas in this purple state.

  • In a Harris Teeter grocery store in Charlotte's trendy Plaza Midwood neighborhood, most shoppers and employees are in masks now. A couple of miles away, the popular local music venue The Evening Muse reinstated a mask requirement.

But in Gastonia, a town 30 minutes west of Charlotte where former President Trump held a mostly maskless rally in front of more than 20,000 people last fall, only about half-a-dozen Harris Teeter shoppers wore masks on a recent visit.

  • And a nearby Circle K convenience store recently advertised a "PPE BLOWOUT SALE" with buy-one-get-one-free masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and wipes — hoping to sell inventory that’s hard to move there.
Circle K's PPE blowout sale, including face masks and hand sanitizer. Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios
Denver

John Frank reports: The morning coffee shop lines in the Park Hill neighborhood just east of downtown Denver returned this summer. The masks? Not so much.

  • One recent morning, only one person — me — wore a mask at Honey Hill Cafe while waiting in line or working at laptops. The staff weren't wearing masks.

The big picture: This week, the CDC listed most of the Denver metro area as a substantial risk zone, but it did little to change behavior. Neither state or local governments added any mandates, and people didn't seem to notice any shift in the pandemic.

Des Moines

The revised CDC guidance hasn't budged Iowa's stand against public mask mandates, but it has moved individuals to act.

State of play: Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a press release after Tuesday's CDC update, calling the guidance "counterproductive to our vaccination efforts, but also not grounded in reality or common sense."

  • Iowa law prohibits mask mandates in public schools or by local governments through a bill Reynolds signed in May.
  • "The vaccine remains our strongest tool to combat COVID-19," Reynolds said.

Yes, but: The guidance is influencing the behavior of some Iowans.

  • Restauranteur Paul Rottenberg has seen "an anecdotal but noticeable increase in mask wearing" at Des Moines' Zombie Burger, he told Axios on Thursday.
  • He hasn't changed restaurant policy (masks aren't required), but he's "prepared to act quickly if necessary."

Multiple Axios Des Moines readers told us they're renewing previous COVID-19 protection measures.

  • Twin concerns: John Stender-Custer has twins who are too young to be vaccinated. That's driving him and his husband to be more careful and to mask more.
  • Personal responsibility: Jill Tenney says she's also masking up. "I don’t believe the governor fully understands the science," Tenney said. "Please, someone explain it to her."
Oahu, Hawaii

Hawaii has stopped requiring COVID-19 testing for vaccinated adults entering the state, but most locals never stopped wearing masks, regardless of their vaccination status.

  • Many restaurants on Oahu require temperature checks before entering and some also ask for your name, phone number and address.
  • Many locals still wear masks outdoors, too.
  • The state has high vaccination rates, but remains conservative about mask use as many locals are concerned about the huge influx of tourists who could bring COVID-19 to the islands.
Tampa Bay

Ben Montgomery writes in: We've been mostly maskless around Tampa Bay since roughly February.

  • The fact that cases didn't spike after tightly packed Super Bowl festivities — combined with a sense of safety in the sunshine and Gov. Ron DeSantis' policies — ushered in an expedited return to normal.

Where it stands now: At the grocery store, a minority of customers are still masked — maybe about one in five. But that percentage seems to be ticking up as local cases rise.

Twin Cities

All COVID-19 restrictions in Minnesota have been lifted since late May and life feels like something approaching normal.

  • In the two biggest counties in the Twin Cities — Hennepin and Ramsey — about 75% of residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

But, but, but: Cases are inching up here, and we're starting to see people mask up again in grocery stores. With school starting in a month and many employers calling office workers back in early September, there's some angst about what will happen this fall.

Axios' Jason Clayworth, John Frank, Alex Golden, Michael Graff, Sara Goo, Nick Halter, Ben Montgomery, Katie Peralta Soloff and Worth Sparkman contributed to this report.