Most major retailers and many other businesses in the Chattanooga area have relaxed their mask policies this week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are safe not to wear a mask in most indoor settings.
Local shopping malls, most government offices, drug stores and supermarkets have all dropped mask requirements. Food City began displaying signs Thursday that "smiling faces are welcome" for those who are vaccinated in its 136 grocery stores. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga issued a policy on Tuesday to allow students and staff to quit wearing masks in classrooms and offices if they are fully vaccinated.
Signs encourage those who are not vaccinated to wear masks, but the stores and UTC are not checking for whether unmasked people are vaccinated or not.
The evolving policies for masks and social distancing have left some workers and shoppers confused about whether to continue to wear facial coverings and how to socially interact with one another as vaccinations rise and the pandemic eases.
"It's been a weird transition because you'll see some people wearing masks and some people going maskless," said Mallory Crook, a recent UTC anthropology graduate who now works as a special collections student assistant at the university library. "It's confusing in social settings because you don't know if you should still wear a mask or not, and I'm not sure in my own mind what to do sometimes."
Last week, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly lifted mask requirements for city workers who are fully vaccinated at most city offices, and the mayor hopes to have all municipal offices and facilities fully open again "as soon as possible."
"I think it's very clear we're trying to put the emphasis on vaccinations, and the main risk is for those who are not vaccinated," Kelly said. "I do think it bears emphasizing that our vaccination rate overall in Chattanooga just crossed 40%, and we're a good 10 percent behind Nashville and 30 percent behind where we need to be with vaccinations."
Hamilton County lifted its mask mandate last month, and Kelly said the city of Chattanooga, like most employers, is relying upon individual workers to exercise personal responsibility for their safety by getting vaccinated.
"There has been this shift back to personal responsibility, and I think that is how it has to be," Kelly said.
The CDC last week said fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — can stop wearing masks outdoors and in most indoor settings. The guidance still calls for people who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks indoors and for everyone to wear them in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.
The CDC was silent on how most businesses should handle workers who have opted to skip the vaccine.
That leaves it up to companies, which are obligated to provide a safe workplace for their employees, to decide whether they should require workers to get vaccinated or alter masking policies for those who are inoculated. Should they seat unvaccinated workers separately from vaccinated colleagues in the office or let them work from home indefinitely? How can they even vet who's received shots and who hasn't?
"I think the whole world is trying to make sense of these regulations," said Terri R. Stewart, partner at the Atlanta branch of the labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. "It's a little bit clear as mud."
Kroger, the country's largest grocery chain, also dropped its mask requirements Thursday for workers and customers in states where mandates are no longer in effect. Other companies that have adopted similar changes include Amazon, Publix, Best Buy, Home Depot, Costco, Target and Trader Joe's.
Amazon is among the few companies requiring employees to show proof that they got the shot before going mask-less, asking them to upload a picture of their vaccine card by mid-June.
At Walmart, workers who wish to go maskless must confirm they are vaccinated by checking "yes" on that question on a daily health questionnaire for employees. Documentation is not required to go maskless. But to qualify for a $75 bonus for vaccinated employees, they will have to show documentation.
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said about 40% of workers who participated in a recent union survey said they were vaccinated. He acknowledged that some may never get the shots, but he said the CDC and companies should have waited a few months to give people more time before shifting the guidance for indoor settings.
Employers are allowed to make vaccinations mandatory, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wrote in December, but must accommodate employees with closely held religious beliefs or medical conditions that preclude vaccination.
So far, few major companies have taken the EEOC up on the offer. In a survey conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management earlier this year, 5% of employers said they would require the vaccine for some or all employees, while 60% said they would not.
Delta Air Lines made headlines last week after CEO Ed Bastian announced his company would become one of the country's largest to require new hires to be vaccinated. So far, none of Chattanooga's biggest employers have mandated their workers get vaccinated.
Kristin White, a workplace safety attorney at law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP in Denver, believes employers should request workers to show proof of vaccination and says that many don't realize they are legally permitted to do so.
"The honor system carries more risk," said White, who has been advising companies on masks during the pandemic.
Interrogating workers on why they are or aren't wearing masks raises privacy concerns.
"Some of those employees may be wearing a mask because they have a disability and they can't get vaccinated; someone may be wearing a mask that is vaccinated but they feel more comfortable wearing a mask," White said.
She is recommending that her clients have a written policy for employees to not ask their peers why they're wearing a face covering. She also says that workers should be trained not to tell on each other.
For Bill Easton, the concern is around customers. Easton has been working as a cashier at a Safeway in Aurora, Colorado, for 27 years and he already feels helpless when customers defy his store's mask policy. He fears they will become more emboldened now that mask policies are being relaxed around the country, even though they remain in place in his store.
On the other hand, some of his friendlier, longtime customers announce to him that they are fully vaccinated and give him a big hug. Easton, too, is vaccinated and even though he appreciates the show of affection, it makes him nervous.
"You wonder, do they really have their COVID shot?" he said.
John Bartlett, a meat manager at a Safeway in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, said he is personally relieved that, for now, his store is still requiring masks for everyone, but he worries that the policy will make dealing with anti-mask customers even more difficult.
"We have customers who literally cuss at us," said Bartlett, recalling an incident in which a man stormed out of the store shouting obscenities after Bartlett pleaded with him to wear a mask. "The country should just have one policy. It would make it easier because we wouldn't have deal with customers who are so rude and awful to us."
The Associated Press and Cox news services contributed to this report.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com.