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Delaware enters ‘era of personal responsibility’ as mask mandate relaxed

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People walk the boardwalk late April, with some wearing masks as mandated under Rehoboth Beach guidelines. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

WILMINGTON — Like many states across the nation, relaxing the mask mandate for vaccinated citizens is a sign that perhaps the end of the COVID-19 pandemic may be on the horizon. In Delaware, that guidance, which went into effect May 21, was greeted by the business community with a sense of euphoria.

“The attitude among our members has been great because it really was difficult to enforce at times,”  said Carol Everhart, the CEO of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve been working on updating our sign language for our businesses to say ‘masks recommended,’ not required. If anything, this is an added draw for people making day trips down here that were uncertain before.”

Gov. John Carney updated the mask guidance on May 14, one day after the surprise announcement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated Americans could safely forgo wearing masks and social distancing in public spaces. It also marks a major milestone in the nation’s response to the pandemic, as the federal agency now only recommends wearing masks by vaccinated individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters and prisons as well as public transportation.

In Delaware, there have been 372,482 residents fully vaccinated and 889,500 doses administered as of May 27. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have been trending downward for weeks since the spring peak with 180 hospitalizations on April 18. With 94 positive cases on a seven-day average and 67 hospitalizations, the state was almost averaging as it did in summer 2020 when testing was not as readily available.

Carney said during the May 18 press conference that the state will not be requiring Delawareans to prove they have been vaccinated.

“It’s the honor system, because otherwise you have to suss out who is vaccinated and who’s not. And that’s just impractical,” the governor said. “It does concern me that some who are not vaccinated won’t wear masks and put others —  who aren’t vaccinated —  at risk.”

Daniel Kinderman, a business professor at the University of Delaware, whose research focuses on the impact that businesses have on society and the environment, said that people are generally excited to return to normalcy, but noted that there are many unknowns at play.

“We are sailing into uncharted waters at this point,” he told DBT. “In general, it’s good to have the freedom to choose, but for business owners who may want to continue with the mask requirement, it does leave them in a tricky position because it’s now harder to enforce it … business owners don’t want to give the ‘wrong answer’ and this has become such a divisive issue. Messaging will be critical from here on out.”

Kinderman also pointed out that there are worldwide reports of “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases, or times when a vaccinated person tests positive for the virus. As of May there are 302 breakthrough cases statewide, according to Delaware Public Media. Virus mutations, which are common but may create a more contagious strain, may also become a larger issue once the state continues to reopen.

“We’re still seeing these novel situations across the world, and that may be the case here. Business owners may also have to consider their employees who may be high-risk and how they may be mindful of those situations rather than unilaterally handle it,” Kinderman said.

Looking to the future, Delaware’s business community is weighing the new guidance and looking at the realities of enforcing the measures. The Christiana Mall will allow customers to opt out of wearing a mask in common areas, although individual stores may choose to keep it.

“As local guidelines change, we update our policies to reflect those changes. However, we want to note that the Christiana Mall management team, housekeeping and our security officers will continue to wear masks in the shopping center for the time being,” said Rachel Wille, spokeswoman of Brookfield Properties, which owns the Christiana Mall.

In Delaware’s restaurants, the mask mandate was difficult to enforce as people needed to take off their face coverings while they ate and put them on as they left the table. Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman said that the hospitality sector has been on the cutting edge of keeping patrons and employees safe during the pandemic.

“We’ve held vaccine events, we’ve been working to smooth out the messaging for our restaurants and I think we will be seeing a lot of our restaurant owners make Human Resource decisions based on the vaccine from here on out,” Leishman said. “But the vaccine is available to everyone at this point. We are going to continue the messaging to reduce the risk of COVID as much as we can.”

“But this announcement has really been to the joy of Delawareans,” she added. “People really want to come back to their favorite restaurant, relax, and gather with their friends and family.”

Down at Rehoboth and Dewey Beach, business owners are preparing for one of the largest summers yet, which has been compared to the post-9/11 summer when people wanted to gather and have fun.

“I don’t think the mask restrictions would have made a huge difference because our rentals and rooms have been booked out since this winter,” Everhart said. “Of course there may be places with small quarters that may ask for the mask, and others may feel more comfortable wearing it at times. But with the vaccine out there, we’re really in this era of personal responsibility.”

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