Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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Some Austin businesses are reinstating mask mandates after local health officials announced a shift to Stage 4 on Friday.
At this stage, all residents—including those who are vaccinated—are encouraged to wear masks while indoors and unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid nonessential trips, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines. These recommendations are unenforceable, however, after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May prohibiting local government entities from issuing mask mandates.
But a handful of local businesses—including restaurants, retail establishments, universities and churches—have heeded local officials' recommendations by reinstating their own mandates, citing the Delta variant and breakthrough cases as reasons for the policy change.
Waterloo Records in downtown Austin and the Blue Starlite drive-in theater, which has three area locations, were among the earliest adopters, announcing new masking requirements on July 15, more than a week before local health officials announced the shift to Stage 4.
Unfortunately, with Covid infections rising in Austin, even some of the fully vaccinated getting infected, the uncertainty of the delta variant, and with Austin now in stage 3 on a collision course with stage 4 restrictions, we are going back to requiring masks at all times.— Waterloo Records (@WaterlooRecords) July 15, 2021
Attention patrons,— Blue Starlite (@UrbanDrivein) July 15, 2021
Due to the rising risk of the DELTA variant, and out of an abundance of caution, we will once again be enforcing a mask policy for all employees and guests. Thank you very much for your continued support of our little drive-in. https://t.co/Y8FAzHAWQY
BookPeople, in downtown Austin, soon followed suit.
Dear Readers,— BookPeople (@BookPeople) July 21, 2021
In order to keep our community safe from rising covid-19 cases in Austin we are now requiring masks from all employees, customers and vendors inside our store.
Thank you for understating and we hope to see y'all soon! pic.twitter.com/x0qXdJjxDy
Starting Monday, St. Edward's University in South Austin will require masks in indoor campus spaces.
With Austin's move to Stage 4, the university is requiring face coverings in campus indoor spaces to protect our community. This is effective on Monday, July 26th and applies to all community members and visitors regardless of vaccination status. Stay safe, Hilltoppers!— SEU Campus Safety (@SEUSafety) July 23, 2021
Retail establishments, including Method Hair in East Austin and Dragon's Lair Comics & Fantasy in North Austin, also joined in, citing the recent move to Stage 4.
Effective immediately, Dragon's Lair Austin is requiring masks for all guests and employees. No current changes to events at this time, but please stay tuned to social media for updates. If you have any questions about event changes, please email firstname.lastname@example.org pic.twitter.com/rmjKYPzYm4— Dragon's Lair Austin (@DLairAustin) July 23, 2021
At least a few restaurants, which have been especially hard hit during the pandemic, have reinstated masking requirements, including Justine's Brasserie in East Austin.
"This was not an easy decision (we're tired on masks, too), but breakthrough Covid cases are real and growing," the restaurant wrote in a Saturday Instagram post. "We wish we could follow France's lead and ask diners, particularly those opting for the (still limited) indoor seating, for proof of inoculation. Abbott, however, has made it illegal for us to do so."
Joe's Bakery in East Austin and Quack's 43rd Street Bakery and Hyde Park are asking patrons to mask up.
St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Northwest Austin held its worship services outside on Sunday, with socially distanced seating and masks required for all attendees, regardless of vaccination status.
Other businesses have taken the Stage 4 announcement to reiterate their existing masking requirements.
REMINDER: Masks are required on board ALL #CapMetro services regardless of vaccination status.— Capital Metro (@CapMetroATX) July 23, 2021
If you do not have a mask, disposable masks are available on board--just ask the operator.
Let's keep each other safe out there! #MaskUpATX pic.twitter.com/5wQihjwQyr
Although the aforementioned businesses have reissued mask mandates, they appear to be in the minority, with most letting customers decide whether to mask up—at least for now. These include major retailers like H-E-B, which made masks optional for fully vaccinated customers on June 9, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Students and staff can now be on University of Texas grounds without a mask, according to the latest campus masking guidance released by University President Jay Hartzell.
The guidance states masks are optional inside and outside of UT building, and masks are recommended but still optional for those not fully vaccinated or have a weakened immune system. It goes into effect immediately as Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that bars public schools and government entities from requiring masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the City of Austin have also released new guidance that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks or social distance.
The new guidance will first be noticed at upcoming sporting events and commencement ceremonies.
Down south in San Marcos, Texas State University released the same guidance earlier on Wednesday.