ITHACA, N.Y. –– In downtown Ithaca, maskless diners line the Aurora Streatery. Bare-faced customers browse for everything from clothing to college gear, and few masks litter streets and sidewalks.
With nearly 70 percent of Tompkins County fully vaccinated and with New York State guidance that releases fully vaccinated individuals from masking and distancing, most Ithaca local businesses have taken down their “masks required” signs, allowing customers to linger inside without wearing a face covering.
Now, as many reenter public life maskless in most settings, deciding whether to mask up has become a personal choice for the county’s fully vaccinated residents, said Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County public health director.
“We feel pretty confident right now,” Kruppa said. “If things change with disease incidence or the variants warrant a different decision, we will certainly consider that and communicate it if that becomes necessary.”
Despite the confidence locally, some health organizations nationally and globally say not to throw the masks away too soon.
The World Health Organization has urged fully vaccinated people to continue wearing masks as the more contagious Delta variant surges globally. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not issued similar guidance, local health departments nationally, including in Los Angeles County, have mandated masks indoors regardless of vaccination status as the Delta variant spreads.
But for Ithaca? Only two Delta cases were identified back in June, and county case numbers remain low, while its vaccination rate exceeds most of New York State. The vaccine has also been proven effective against Delta, though the variant remains a risk to those who are unvaccinated.
“Variants are one of the biggest remaining concerns with COVID,” Kruppa said. “We’ve done a lot to get people vaccinated and take steps to stop the spread until vaccines were available. And now the real threat in front of us is if we do have variants that are more virulent and might not be as susceptible to the vaccine, we could see similar problems as we saw last year.”
Despite evidence that the spread has slowed in Tompkins County, many, including business owners, are feeling uncertain in the face of change.
At Collegetown Wine and Spirits, owner Kody Crispell said he kept the mask requirement around more than a month after the state changed its policy, saying that the new guidance felt too sudden.
“For the safety for myself, my employees and customers, I just felt it was necessary to keep it around a little longer at that point,” Crispell said.
But after conversations with employees about their comfort levels and noticing that other Collegetown businesses had also lifted the mandate, Crispell thought it was time to get rid of the policy by the end of June.
“I felt that customers would feel comfortable coming in without the mask mandate,” Crispell said. “I just felt like it was time.”
Still, Crispell said this might not be the end of mask wearing: If virus cases tick up again, he said he’ll revisit it: “I think a lot of businesses will,” he said. “It would have to get to the point where it’s spreading pretty rapidly and people are starting to worry about it.”
At The Watershed, owner Ashley Cake said the bar was one of the last local businesses to take down the mask requirement — she lifted it more than two weeks ago after long keeping an eye on the county vaccination rate. The bar has also kept up floor barriers and is running at just over half capacity.
“We’re not really in any sort of rush to get back to full capacity. Folks are of course welcome to wear masks, and of course some people do,” Cake said. “It was about protecting my staff, making sure that they were comfortable with whatever restrictions we were going to lift, and that takes time.”
And for storefronts that welcome younger children, masks might not be going away so soon. At Alphabet Soup toy store on the Commons, owner Greta Perl said she’s following guidelines for schools, summer camps and other places where children gather indoors, which recommend mask wearing indoors where vaccination status is unknown.
Perl added that without a practical way to verify vaccination status and embracing the comfort level of her staff, she is keeping up the mask requirement for all customers, even as many storefronts have lifted it.
“Our comfort level is not at a ‘Well, it’ll probably be OK. That’s just not where our comfort level is,” Perl said. “We would want to have a verification, and in the end, I went through a lot of different thoughts, and this one was the simplest. If there’s an additional layer of safety that I can provide to my staff and my customers and my community, I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t.”
Ultimately, Kruppa said, businesses and customers need to make a decision that matches their concerns and comfort levels.
“Every individual is unique. Their health care concerns are unique. Their feelings of concern and comfort are unique,” Kruppa said. “If you’re fully vaccinated and it makes you feel better, and you think it will help protect you and your family more, go ahead and wear a mask. There’s nothing stopping you from doing it, and it certainly adds another layer of protection.”