A lot happened last week on the COVID front. On Wednesday, the CDC gave the green light for vaccinating adolescents aged 12-15, two days after the FDA gave Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer vaccine. This was great news not only for parents, but for the community, as it added another chunk of people to fill vaccine appointments.
On Friday, as expected, the state of Illinois moved into the Bridge Phase of the Restore Illinois plan. This increased venue capacity at varying levels. If vaccination percentages continue to rise and hospitalizations continue to fall, Phase 5 will happen June 11th, and all capacity limits will be lifted.
Later that day, the nation, the state, and C-U were all thrown for a collective loop when the CDC announced that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks or socially distance in public settings, with a few exceptions. In response, the cities of Champaign and Urbana lifted their mask mandates, as well as emergency orders restricting movement at bars and restaurants and special event permits.
While all of this has a bit of a “mission accomplished” vibe, it’s important to remember that the pandemic isn’t over. In Champaign County, about 45% of the eligible population (12 and up) are fully vaccinated. That leaves more than half of the county’s eligible population susceptible to contracting and spreading COVID, as well as children under 12 who are not yet eligible. After more than a year of caution, distancing, and masking, things seem to be moving very quickly, and it’s completely valid to have mistrust for how others will handle this shift— we haven’t always agreed on what it means to use common sense during this crisis.
It is still important to be a good citizen as we navigate this new phase, so we’re updating some of our advice from the past year to reflect our current situation. And yes, we said during a pandemic, because while we are hopefully in the home stretch, we are not home free.
Do: Continue to mask if you are unvaccinated, or if you are fully vaccinated and feel more comfortable staying masked.
The new CDC guidance is setting us up for a social experiment. The guidance for mask removal is directed at vaccinated people, as it’s becoming more clear that they are at a very low risk of contracting or transmitting COVID. However, with no current plans for having individuals show proof of vaccination, we are operating on an honor system. An honor system isn’t great when so many have disregarded public health guidance all along. The people who have balked at guidelines, complained about masks, and demanded that schools/restaurants/businesses be fully open likely overlap with those not planning to get vaccinated. It's reasonable to assume that those individuals will take this opportunity to stop masking.
Because of this, many vaccinated folks will continue to mask up, and that’s absolutely fine. Some may have kids who cannot yet be vaccinated. Some may live or interact with people who are immunocompromised. And some might just be more comfortable wearing a mask in public to help avoid a potentially deadly virus for 14 months.
Don’t: Shame people for continuing to mask up.
This is going to be a weird time of transition for all of us. There are plenty of reasons for people to continue wearing their masks in addition to those listed above, and every reason is valid. If you are a vaccinated person and you are ready to bare your face, fantastic. However, after a year of keeping our air to ourselves and avoiding others’ air, it’s going to take a while for some of us to share air again. Maybe a long while. Honestly, we should be normalizing the use of masks, especially during cold and flu season — flu season was non-existent this year for a reason. Everyone is going to handle this new “freedom” differently, just like when we’ve moved through the other phases, and that’s okay. C-U has been a solidly masked community throughout the pandemic, so I imagine we’ll be seeing them on faces for a while.
Do: Support the local food establishments and businesses where you feel comfortable.
Restaurants and other businesses have been through the wringer. Most have adapted again and again to keep up with changing guidelines as cases fluctuated. It hasn’t been easy, and we applaud those that have navigated this time with an understanding that the health and safety of the community was priority number one. Not all did. With city mask mandates lifted, it’s going to be up to individual establishments to set their masking policies. Continue to seek out those businesses that care about the health and safety of their employees and customers.
Don’t: Complain when some restrictions are still in place.
Even if there is no mask mandate set by the cities, some places are going to require them. Don’t be a jerk about it. Employees aren’t paid enough to deal with your shit. If you don’t want to wear a mask, curbside service is available pretty much everywhere. And yes, many places are short staffed right now (no, not just because people are getting too much unemployment). Treat employees kindly.
Do: Get vaccinated, and if you already are, help get others vaccinated.
The key to keeping cases and hospitalizations low, and preventing more deaths, is a more vaccinated community. Vaccination rates have slowed throughout the country, including here in Champaign County. It’s going to be more of a slog to reach those that haven’t gotten vaccinated yet. Sometimes it’s a matter of access. Champaign-Urbana Public Health District is working to remedy that by partnering with churches and bringing clinics to neighborhoods, for example. Maybe you have sway with someone in your life who is hesitant. As we wrote last week, you could literally save a life by having a couple of conversations with someone who trusts and respects what you have to say.
Don’t: Wait to get vaccinated.
Our lives are busy, and if you are a young and/or healthy person this might be an appointment that you keep putting off as something you’ll get to eventually. Young and healthy people still get COVID, and sometimes suffer terrible effects from it. Our community’s health depends on more people being vaccinated as soon as possible. There are numerous ways to access vaccine appointments in our county. Please don’t wait.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.