By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on May 20, 2021
On May 13, in a move that surprised experts and the public alike, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its guidelines in announcing that Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer have to wear masks or physically distance indoors in most cases.
While recommending that those who have not been inoculated continue to mask up and socially distance, the move essentially put the non-vaccinated population on the honor system.
A day later, after announcing in late April that the state expected to lift COVID-19 mandates by June 1, Governor Roy Cooper followed suit, removing the state’s indoor mask mandate for most settings as well as lifting all mass gathering limits and social distancing requirements. While Cooper said that those not vaccinated should wear a mask and maintain distance in all indoor public settings, the lifting of restrictions applied to all.
The sudden loosening of COVID restrictions sent local public officials scrambling. Dare County announced it would modify its State of Emergency to be in line with Cooper’s most recent directive, although it took some time to post that update on the www.darenc.com website.
As far as the Dare County Schools, mask mandates and social distancing guidelines remain unchanged at the state and local level, according to Dare County Schools Director of Digital Communications Keith Parker.
Trying to allay any confusion on the part of restaurateurs in the town, Kill Devil Hills issued an Executive Order allowing restaurants to continue with outdoor dining that was allowed because of indoor capacity COVID restrictions. In a similar vein, Nags Head announced it would continue to issue and honor special use permits that allowed for outdoor restaurant dining through the end of November, even if North Carolina’s State of Emergency related to COVID is lifted before then.
Calling the governor’s lifting of crowd-gathering restrictions, “a surprise move,” the town of Manteo just announced that it would be able to hold its annual July 4th celebration, but would not have enough time to host its annual Dare Day event that occurs in early June.
Dare County Department of Health and Human Services Director (DHHS) Sheila Davies said she was surprised by the sudden lifting of restrictions and is taking a wait-and-see approach. “We hope that we don’t see an increase in cases or viral spread, but we’re not changing anything with our [DHHS] staffing patterns because we want to see what the next few weeks bring,” Davies told the Voice.
Noting the approach of a busy period with proms and graduations that could potentially bring a lot of unvaccinated people together since the younger population doesn’t have as high of a vaccination rate, she added: “We’re just hoping for the best, but prepared in case we see an increase in cases that we need to respond to.”
For businesses and their customers on the Outer Banks, the sudden loosening of mandates at the federal, state and local level has also meant navigating a gray area when it comes to what is arguably the most visible symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic – the mask.
“I think that everybody was kind of prepared for the governor’s announcement at the end of the month, but the CDC’s change in direction kind of pushed that timeline forward for the state,” noted Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles. “Though of course businesses still have the option of imposing mask mandates in their individual businesses if they want to, but it becomes more confusing for the consumer.”
One ubiquitous feature of the pandemic — the sign on the front door of a store telling patrons they are required to wear masks — has virtually disappeared, in some cases replaced with new messages.
At Community Yoga, for example, a new sign read, “All mask mandates for Community Yoga are dropped. Be free people.” At the other end of the spectrum, a bright yellow sign on the door of a CVS store said: “Face coverings recommended for your safety and ours.”
A check of a number of business in the past week found that in some, particularly those that are part of national companies, all employees were continuing to wear masks after the Cooper announcement. For most of the stores visited, however, mask-wearing seemed to be left up to individual employees, with some wearing them and others going mask-less. In several of the businesses observed, none of the employees were wearing masks.
As a general rule, mask wearing by customers seemed to mirror those of the employees. In places where all employees were masked, most customers were as well, for example. In one store where only one employee had a mask, the only customer to wear a mask was an adolescent girl, who may have been too young to have been vaccinated yet.
It may well be that the system is working largely the way public officials hope it will, with those not vaccinated wearing masks and those who have been not wearing them. But the mixed masked wearing my also reflect some confusion and uncertainty on the part of the public.
“Once again, just like everything else in the COVID situation, changes come fast and furious…and you’re a little weary of the changes because you never know when it’s going to change back,” said Wes Stepp, owner of Red Sky Café in Duck and president of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association.
Asked about how restaurants are responding to the lifted restrictions, Stepp said, “It’s a gray area. And I think most restaurants are kind of just staying the course with a little bit of an ease that there’s no real wrong answer anymore as far as face coverings.”
At Red Sky Café, Stepp said that even though the vast majority of his staff has been vaccinated, employees are still wearing masks to convey a safe environment, a practice a number of restaurants seem to be exercising as mandates are lifted and the pandemic appears to be subsiding.
“We want to project an image of COVID consciousness to our guests, especially visitors who come from areas that have had more COVID consequences than we’ve had in our area,” he explained.
As for guests, Stepp said it’s a mixed bag, with some masking up and some not. “If someone comes in and doesn’t have [a mask], I’m not going to go up and ask them for their vaccination card. I just think that it’s getting closer to being back to normal. But just like anything else – even if it’s change for the good, it’s awkward.”
Nettles echoed Stepp: “I think as we move out from a heavily regulated and heavily restricted environment to a one that’s looser and in trying to get back to normal, we’re just going to have some of the push and pull and moments of being uncomfortable.”