Last April, an executive order mandated that people wear face coverings in public. Overnight, face covering became essential for entering public spaces. Not everyone embraced the order, but eventually people complied. It was a significant change at the time, but it was guided by science and the desire to keep our community safe.
As of Monday, there has been another major shift: Mask mandates have been lifted for everyone in the state, whether they are vaccinated or not, with the exception of children ages 5 and older while they are in school or daycare. Federal and state CDC guidance still calls for unvaccinated individuals to continue masking indoors, but it is a strong suggestion, not a rule. For some, the idea is liberating while for others it is downright terrifying.
We don’t blame people for feeling apprehensive. We’ve been under the grip of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 800 Mainers and about 3.5 million people worldwide – and it is not over. A lot has changed during the last 14 months and as people reintegrate, it is going to take some time to readjust.
For more than a year we’ve been told to follow the science: Wash your hands, stay 6 feet apart, wear a mask and, now that vaccinations are widely available, to roll up our sleeves. When we were told to stay in our homes, we did. When we were told to limit our exposure, we did. Now, it seems the science is guiding us toward easing up.
Emerging data is beginning to show – in a real-word setting – just how effective the COVID-19 vaccines are. A study out of Israel, where the drug maker Pfizer conducted a nation-wide vaccination campaign in exchange for the country’s health data, has proven that the vaccine significantly reduces illness and transmission among the inoculated public.
A big concern, of course, is what happens to those who are unvaccinated, either by choice or because they are ineligible due to age or medical issues. What if those who aren’t vaccinated shed their masks in public? Personal responsibility and respect for other people’s boundaries and comfort levels will be key as we move into this next phase of reopening.
Mainers have done a great job so far keeping each other safe during the pandemic. Even in tourist towns like Bar Harbor, where there was an influx of out-of-staters throughout the summer season, transmission rates were low and compliance to local rules and regulations was high. There is no reason to think that will not be the case again this year.
Maine is leading the way in vaccine uptake, which can only lead to a safer environment for everyone. Even after expanding the eligibility to those ages 12 and up last week, the state stands at nearly 56 percent of its population being fully vaccinated. And, with new Maine CDC data available by zip code, you can even see what percentage of your neighbors are vaccinated. (The town of Mount Desert, with an 89 percent vaccination rate, is leading the way on Mount Desert Island, by the way.)
It is going to take some time for people to feel comfortable taking off their masks and that is to be expected. It is also going to take some time for business owners and employees to feel comfortable welcoming a largely unmasked public back into tight spaces. For the foreseeable future, expect a hodgepodge of rules among local businesses and be prepared to follow them. If a mask is required to enter, wear it. Be kind. Be patient. Things are looking up.