It’s been a week since the CDC announced fully vaccinated adults are no longer required to wear a mask. In Asheville, businesses and customers are still figuring out whether they’re ready to let go of the mask.
For retail stores that primarily cater to tourists, the decision to ditch the mask isn’t black and white. At the Olde World Christmas Shoppe in Biltmore Village, store manager Laura Rathbone says she’s still wearing her mask, even though she’s vaccinated, so that customers feel comfortable.
"Almost all of our customers are from out of town, they’re tourists, because you don’t come into a Christmas store until Christmas if you’re local," Rathbone said.
...And yes, her mask is decked out with Christmas trees. Rathbone says she thinks there’s a portion of the public that feels unsafe without a mask and that last week’s announcement from the CDC felt rushed. She says she was anticipating the CDC's announcment to lift the mask mandate would come later this summer.
"Because it was so abrupt and so quick, I think that might be part of the caution, that people are feeling," Rathbone said. "Perceptively they were thinking it might be a few months later. I think by that time, we’ll feel a lot more comfortable."
For Asheville resident Lynn Brooks, that time might not ever come.
"Because I’m older, I wear a mask when I’m around crowds and when I go into stores," Brooks said.
Brooks was taking a shopping break, outside of a Williams Sonoma store. That national chain has decided to keep its employees covered for the time being, though store policies vary by state. Brooks, a retired physician, says going forward, masking should be based on personal preference.
"I really do hope in time we become kinder and realize that there are subgroups that feel comfortable wearing masks or not feeling comfortable wearing masks, whatever, but learn to accept each other," Brooks said. "Please feel a mask if you feel compelled to do so, and if you don't, then that's certainly your choice."
At a nearby women’s clothing boutique, employees are adjusting to their first day on the job, without the mask.
“It’s weird being able to see faces again. I mean, it’s nice, but after a whole year of wearing masks," Amy Suggs, assistant manager at Palm Village, said.
She says the decision to allow vaccinated employees to forgo the mask came from the corporate office -- the store has locations in four states. Suggs says the small shop typically only sees a few customers at a time, but she might reach for a mask, just in case.
"Well and I wear it when I go to other stores," Suggs said.
This period of transition is kind of like an awkward dance -- people are figuring out and defining for themselves what safety and responsibility mean. That tango played out in real time on a downtown sidewalk along Broadway this week.
Just as BPR was recording this story, tourists Catherine Mulhern and John Maggiotto were having a friendly dispute outside the Moogseum. They were on their way inside, when Maggiotto pivoted back to his car to grab a mask.
“You don’t need a mask anymore!," Mulhern impatiently shouted.
“We’re both vaccinated, and the rate of infection is way down, people who really have health conditions or don't want to be vaccinated, wear a mask," Mullhern said. "But we don’t have to anymore!”
The two visitors from Upstate New York are at odds over whether or not to mask on their trip, as they wander in and out of shops and galleries.
“Well, I’m just a little more thoughtful about some of the people who we may bump into," Maggiotto said. "I think about having it if the store owner wants me to wear a mask, I’m going to wear a mask."
Maggiotto says he feels it’s courteous to keep his mask handy. Mulhern says she’s still keeping one in her purse, too.
That preparedness might come in handy in this period of transition. The CDC says masks may still be required by state, local, tribal or territorial laws as well as businesses and workplaces.