By Joseph Ax and Tim Reid
PRINCETON, N.J./SANTA MONICA, Calif. (Reuters) – A COVID-19 surge ignited in parts of the United States by the highly contagious Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy has led to new mask mandates and deep confusion among some people about which guidance to follow.
In Los Angeles County, leaders have reinstated an indoor mask mandate, even for the fully vaccinated. Officials in Houston and New Orleans also raised coronavirus alert levels this week and told people to mask up.
In Florida, however, Governor Ron DeSantis said on Thursday children will not be required to wear masks in school there this fall, arguing that “we need our kids to breathe.” Hours later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: “If I were a parent in Florida, that would be greatly concerning to me.”
“Everyone is confused about what they should be doing,” said Daniel Blacksheare, a 20-year-old in Santa Monica, California, who said he was infected twice last year. “I don’t understand why we have to suddenly wear a mask again.”
The county sheriff in Los Angeles County said his department will not enforce the measure.
The conflicting advice from officials at city, county, state and federal levels of government comes as hospital officials in the harder-hit states with lower vaccination rates are sounding the alarm about their systems being overwhelmed.
The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in the United States is up 53% over the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. The Delta variant makes up more than 80% of the new cases across the country.
Much of the guidance falls along the same political lines as earlier in the pandemic. Leaders in heavily Republican states generally eschew masks, and Democrats insist upon them.
Schools are a particular tension point nationwide. Children under age 12 are still not eligible for coronavirus vaccines, and many parents consider masks as the best remaining defense.
Yet as some areas return to the classroom in just a few weeks, there are wide divisions over whether children should be wearing masks in schools.
The American Academy of Pediatrics this week released updated recommendations for schools that included mask wearing for everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that unvaccinated children should wear masks in schools.
But the CDC on Thursday said it is not changing its mask guidance for schools, including that masks are only required for those over age 2 who have not been vaccinated. The CDC in May relaxed its guidance so that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in most public spaces.
In Princeton, New Jersey, Ximena Skovron said she finds the dust-ups over masks and what the guidance actually is to be perplexing.
“I’m vaccinated, and the rules seem to change,” she said. “But it’s also inconsistent. You’ve got two grocery stores in town: one requires masks, one doesn’t.”
Skovron said she does not think states should reimpose mask mandates.
“Vaccines are readily available. The ability to protect yourself is there,” she said. “If you refuse, you should assume the risk instead of imposing on the rest of society.”
Her 6-year-old daughter will enter first grade this fall, and Skovron said she hopes the school does not require masks, citing the extremely low rate of serious COVID-19 incidence among small children.
“It just seems like such overkill for children to wear masks,” she said.
But Melissa Riccobono, 44, of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, said she is pro-mask and thinks there should be mandates when and where necessary.
“If you’re choosing not to vaccinate, that’s your choice, and I’m fine with that – but it’s not your choice whether to wear a mask,” she said.
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Santa Monica, California, and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, and Carl O’Donnell in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Grant McCool)