What do the new CDC mask guidelines mean for Colorado businesses?

Colorado businesses must now determine their own policies for face masks, following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Understanding the latest CDC mask update

According to the CDC mask update, fully vaccinated people can largely go about their day to day without a face covering.

Should you require customers and employees to wear masks? Should you ask customers for proof of vaccination?

“It's a challenge for businesses because there are still a lot of questions and a lot of things that are unresolved," says Jon VonderHaar, a safety services consultant at Pinnacol Assurance. “And when we talk about masks, there are so many emotions running so deep."

Factor in that a narrow majority of unvaccinated adults are comfortable resuming their normal routines without wearing a mask, compared with just over one in three vaccinated adults — and it only adds to the dilemma for businesses.

State, local guidance aligns with the CDC mask update

The May 13 CDC update specifies that “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance." Exceptions to the recommendations include health care facilities.

Individuals reach their "fully vaccinated" status two weeks after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after a single jab of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine.

In Colorado, state and local guidelines largely align with the CDC mask update:

  • A day after the CDC update, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order stating fully vaccinated individuals don't need to mask up in nearly all settings.
  • The state order also encourages — but doesn't require — people 11 years and older who aren't fully vaccinated to wear a face covering while indoors with members of different households.
  • The city of Denver has ended capacity limits and distancing requirements in most settings, while many Colorado counties have relaxed their mask restrictions.
  • However, some counties and municipalities may still impose stricter standards. Manitou Springs, for example, currently requires people to wear a face covering inside all local businesses and outdoors within six feet of others.

Businesses can still require masks

Even after the CDC mask update, businesses can still ask customers to wear face coverings and refuse service to those who won't.

Businesses also can require proof of being fully vaccinated in the form of a vaccination card or an image of one on a mobile phone.

If customers can't prove they're vaccinated, you can require them to cover their faces.

Keep in mind: Mandating masks or proof of vaccination may irritate some customers. You may even face pushback from your competition and some employees, VonderHaar says.

Strike a balance using feedback from your stakeholders

The CDC update provides an opportunity to ask employees how they feel about interacting with unmasked customers whose vaccine status is unclear.

Those conversations can help foster a culture of safety and inclusion. “If your employees have input in shaping a decision, they're going to be more on board with it, and you're not trying to sell them to the idea," VonderHaar says.

Also, you may want to gauge how workers feel about policing masks or the even more difficult task of asking customers to verify their vaccination status.

And how do your customers feel about these hot-button issues? Alienating them may pose a risk to your business's well-being.

“Asking about a vaccine is a personal question, and with some people, it will become a more confrontational thing," VonderHaar says.

Considering the CDC's mask update in your effort to protect employees and customers

Whatever your mask or vaccination policy, it's important to adapt your messaging for this stage of the pandemic:

  • Swap out the “Stop! Mask required!" signage for softer language. “For the protection of our employees, we ask that you wear a mask while you're in the store," VonderHaar says, by example. People often respond better when asked to do something, rather than being told.
  • Help employees and customers understand the reasons behind your decision. Remember, your workforce or customer base may still be at-risk to the virus or have their own concerns.

You can maintain other means of infection control even if you decide not to require masks or proof of vaccination. These tactics include:

  • Physical barriers
  • Good ventilation
  • High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters
  • Messaging about good hand hygiene

You can also take steps to help employees get vaccinated, like reminding full- and part-time workers they can get paid time off for their shot and recovery from any side effects. You can even hold a vaccination event for your employees.

While the CDC mask update represents a key step towards recovery, it's also a reminder of the complexity of the situation.

This is still a time to "be gracious, be kind, and be considerate of your employees and your customers," VonderHaar says.

Looking for help with your safety program?

Pinnacol Assurance has the largest and most experienced safety team in Colorado ready to help its customers identify and eliminate workplace hazards. Contact a Pinnacol safety consultant to learn more and set up a free virtual safety visit.

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