CDC guidelines prompt county to reconsider new directive

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 13, 2021 8:59 PM CT | Published: May 13, 2021 3:46 PM CT

Shortly after the Centers for Disease Control announced Thursday, May 13, that vaccinated Americans could return to normal, ditching the masks in almost all situations, including large gatherings, Shelby County government said Health Directive No. 21, set to go into effect Saturday, may be in for a rewrite.

CDC: Fully vaccinated people can largely ditch masks indoors

“In light of the new masking guidelines from the CDC, there is a high probability that we will review Health Directive No. 21,” said Linda Moore, county communications specialist.

“How the health directive could change will depend on our review of the CDC latest guidance and a statement expected late today from President Joe Biden.”

The new county directive, released Wednesday, May 12, leaves masking largely up to individual discretion, including in workplaces and in schools where leaders would have final say on policy. It also eliminates most business restrictions.

But masking here would be required in these situations: 

1. You are awaiting, boarding, disembarking, or traveling on public airplanes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-shares as they are traveling into, within, or out of the United States and U.S. territories. This includes hubs, airports, terminals, stations, and ports of entry.

2. You are working or visiting at a business, restaurant, school, or any other establishment that requires you to wear a mask (regardless of whether you are vaccinated) and has posted “mask required” notice signs at frequently used entrances.

3. You are entering property on which a public authority (local, state, or federal) has a propriety interest, and that authority requires you to wear a mask while in the property and has posted “mask required” notice signs at frequently used entrances.

4. You work at an indoor business in which employees could regularly come in contact with unvaccinated people or people who are infected with COVID-19.

According to the CDC guidance, vaccinated people still need to wear masks on public transportation and in businesses that require them, including health care settings. 

If Directive No. 21 is rewritten, Dr. Jon McCullers, member of the Shelby County Public Health advisory board and pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, doesn’t expect major revisions.

“I don’t think they are going to have to make outrageous changes; it may be tweaking the language a little to be clearer and closer to the CDC guidance. I don’t think this would be a huge deal,” he said.

McCullers expects the tweaks could be finished before the directive is set to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

McCullers had not been briefed by county officials, but he did speak to Dr. Bruce Randolph, health officer for the Health Department, shortly after the CDC guidance was released.

“I think the language (in Health Directive 21) wasn’t crystal clear about workers. He was trying to get across that workers were not mandated to wear masks, but that employers under OSHA restrictions are responsible for preventing risk to their employees,” McCullers said.

As an example, he said, a hostess in a restaurant would be exposed to a lot of people and therefore would be required to mask.

“The business owner has to make the calculus, basically,” McCullers said.

The nub of the issue, he said, is that health authorities want people to mask if they have not been vaccinated.

“The CDC’s new guidance saying that masks are not necessary either indoors or outdoors for those who are vaccinated is good news,” says Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, associate professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

“The actual wording is a little confusing. I would boil it down to: 1. Get vaccinated. 2. Once you are fully vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask unless it’s required (on transportation) or requested (by store owner, for instance.) 3. If you have symptoms of respiratory infection, don’t go to social events or work; get tested. This should be the norm going forward. 4. Be kind and respectful during this latest transition in guidance.”

In his afternoon remarks, President Joe Biden spoke to reporters without wearing a mask.

“If you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you have earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: greeting others with a smile. With a smile. So, it is a good day for the country,” he said.

Mike Miller, head of the Memphis Restaurant Association, found Health Directive 21 contradictory, with guidance that seemed to give employers final say in masking and later phrasing that required masks for workers in public places where they could have contact with nonvaccinated people.

“That is where the confusion between what we were told and what the verbiage is,” he said.

A rewrite, he said, could be “their way of correcting it.”

McCullers still is not comfortable with vaccinated people being in large groups without masks, as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, said is now possible.

“The vaccine is not perfect,” he said. “But I do think venues can start to relax a bit.”

In Memphis, the test will be the resumption of large gatherings in close quarters, such as University of Memphis football games at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Based on objections from Gov. Bill Lee and other Republican governors to vaccine passports, McCullers doubts there will be separate seating for vaccinated spectators anywhere in the state.

“It violates his perception of what it means to have personal data kept private.”


Mask Mandate Health Directive No. 21 Dr. Jon McCullers Dr. Rebecca Wurtz
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.