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As CDC recommendations change, indoor mask wearing in Boston still mostly automatic

Gia X. of Back to the Roots, an Afro-Caribbean clothing and jewelry shop in Grove Hall, helped a customer.
Gia X. of Back to the Roots, an Afro-Caribbean clothing and jewelry shop in Grove Hall, helped a customer.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

On the first weekend after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced vaccinated people could safely go maskless indoors, store owners and customers appeared to largely stay true to state rules.

Wearing a face covering while inside seems a strongly ingrained reflex, according to businesses and shoppers in Grove Hall and on Newbury Street on Saturday.

“It would be weird not wearing it,” said Nichole M., 28, of Boston, a Newbury Street shopper who declined to give her last name as she stood outside a clothing store. A friend walked out of the store, removing a mask as she exited.

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On Saturday, the state reported that it had given an additional 66,675 vaccine doses the day before, bringing the total of those fully vaccinated to 3,175,284. The state also reported 657 new cases and 5 new deaths from the virus.

The CDC announced Thursday that those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not have to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings but current Massachusetts rules require masks inside and outside if social distancing is not possible. Governor Charlie Baker said restrictions may be updated early this week.

Although vaccination rates are increasing and deaths are down, mask-wearing is a complicated issue, even for scientists, according to Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, especially as many people have experienced trauma throughout the pandemic.

He said the science supports the CDC’s guidance and said that the vaccines available are effective in blocking a lot of COVID-19 transmission.

“The problem is how that got translated into a policy recommendation, which is to say that safety depends on how many people are vaccinated, what percentage, and how common COVID is,” Scarpino said.

CDC guidance, he said, should have been more closely tied to those factors.

“I think the CDC could have included that nuance more directly in their updated guidelines,” he said.

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Many people have become used to wearing masks indoors, particularly workers in stores and restaurants, and many may continue to be cautious about getting rid of them now.

The CDC’s guidance should have also addressed those concerns, he said.

“We need to have serious conversations around the safety of employees who often don’t get a say in the matter,” Scarpino said.

Scarpino, who has disagreed with many of the steps Baker has taken during the pandemic, said he hopes the governor will consider these issues as part of any updated guidance on mask wearing in Massachusetts.

“He has often shown compassion and understanding and he clearly understands the complexity and nuance . . . I am cautiously optimistic that his announcement is going to reflect that,” Scarpino said.

At this point, many business owners said they are used to contradictions among city, state, federal, and company guidelines, as well as the sudden twists and turns in the pandemic.

“Right now we’re talking about this; tomorrow could be another shutdown,” said Goddy Joint, a manager at Porta Classica, a men’s clothing store in Grove Hall.

Goddy Joint (left), manager of Porta Classica a men's clothing and shoe store in Grove Hall, helped Marc Williams of Boston.
Goddy Joint (left), manager of Porta Classica a men's clothing and shoe store in Grove Hall, helped Marc Williams of Boston.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Shortly before that, Firas Yousif was noting that the city often lags state and federal guidance. “Boston’s behind,” he said from the counter in his high-end evening wear shop on Newbury Street. “It takes business away,” he said.

A few blocks away at a hat shop, manager Greg Petronio, said decisions about mask rules are “above my pay grade,” as company management sets standards, which are sometimes more stringent than local rules, for the 14 Goorin Bros. shops across the country.

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People interviewed Saturday gave a mix of perspectives about wearing masks outdoors — where passersby ranged from full mask to mask-on-chin, from mask in hand to no mask in sight — but had few differences about indoor requirements.

“I don’t think we’re ready to be indoors without a mask on,” said a customer, who gave only her first name, Tracy, at Afro-Caribbean store Back to the Roots in Grove Hall. She wore a mask as a store employee sat across a small table outside the store without one.

The employee, Gia X, 52, said she did not even consider having maskless customers inside any time soon, but appreciated the chance to take hers off outside.

If the state continues moving back toward normalcy, the store might eventually repurpose the masks they have made for some other project, she said.

“We don’t know what’s coming,” the customer, Tracy, 52, of Boston, shot back with a laugh. “Keep those masks for sale.”

Newbury Street was crowded but less than before the pandemic, according to longtime hurdy-gurdy street musician Donald Heller, 72, of Boston, who said he still wears a mask because “my boss said I have to” — meaning his wife of 42 years.

“There may be less people,” he said, “but these people are feeling good.”

Spirits were also high at a graffiti art festival in a lot across the street from the Grove Hall Boston Public Library branch.

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“In general, I would tend to wear a mask,” said Ed Gaskin, executive director of the Great Grove Hall Main Streets. Going into stores, he said, “I don’t need one more reason for people to look at me because I’m Black.”

He looked around the crowd and laughed at the mix of people with and without masks outdoors, joking, “People think if anyone would not be wearing masks it would be Black graffiti artists.”

Gaskin said he was not wearing a mask when he came, since the event is outside, but put one on after reading the crowd.

Devin Allen, 30, of East Boston, said the opposite: He showed up with a mask on but read the crowd and took it off.

As a TSA officer at Logan International Airport, Allen said he’s seen the confusion the CDC directives can bring.

On Thursday, shortly after the new guidelines were announced, he said he asked a traveler to put on a mask. As first, the traveler held up his phone with the CDC news, saying “oh, you didn’t hear?”

He said the traveler complied in the end and Allen shrugged off the episode.

“It’s like a crossroads of this whole thing,” he said.


Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.