Just over a year since federal health officials recommended face mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its advice for those who are fully vaccinated. 

But don’t scrap your masks just yet. San Antonio officials and business owners were largely caught off guard by the news and reacted to the guidance this week with a mix of responses. 

The CDC first recommended the use of face masks on April 3, 2020, to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in public spaces. Though the measure became somewhat politicized in the U.S., mask-wearing has been widely adopted as research proved its effectiveness. 

The advent of vaccines in late December, which have been shown to be 86% to 97% effective, has led to a downward trajectory in positive cases. Some states already have ended statewide mask mandates, including Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the mandate on March 10.

On Thursday, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities both indoors and outdoors without wearing a mask or physically distancing from others, except where other state and local rules mandate masks, including business and workplace policies. 

“We have all longed for this moment where we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. 

To date, about 36% of the total adult population and 31% of Texans have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson. 

In Bexar County, 48% of residents have been fully vaccinated, and 64% are well on their way with one of the required two doses administered.

The new CDC guidance also comes within a week of the Food and Drug Administration approving the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12-15. 

Arrian Aceves, 14, receives a vaccination against COVID-19 while his mom, Christine, watches at the Wonderland of the Americas vaccine clinic on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

But overall vaccination rates have steadily declined throughout the country, from a high of 4.2 million doses given April 1 to 1.8 million on May 13, putting a previous goal of establishing nationwide herd immunity through vaccines possibly out of reach. 

Though the CDC relaxed rules around mask-wearing in most public places, it stated that a mask-wearing requirement remains in effect on public transportation, and within airports and stations. 

That includes the San Antonio International Airport which is enforcing a mandate set by the Transportation Security Administration. All travelers, vaccinated and not, are required to wear face masks while on planes and at the airport. The mandate is in effect until Sept. 13, a spokeswoman said.   

VIA Metropolitan Transit also released a statement following CDC’s announcement reminding passengers that masks are required on all public transit. 

But fully vaccinated staff and visitors to City of San Antonio facilities can go maskless starting May 17, and temperature checks at entrances are being discontinued.

“I remain committed to ensuring the health and safety of our City staff and our customers,” stated City Manager Erik Walsh. “It’s easier than ever to receive a no-cost COVID-19 vaccine. Being able to return to normal activities is just one more incentive to getting vaccinated. Do it for you. Do it for our frontline workers. Do it for San Antonio.”

On Friday, Walmart announced it no longer requires vaccinated customers to wear masks in stores. The nation’s largest employer also said vaccinated employees can go maskless starting May 18.

H-E-B did not respond to calls for information about its mask policy. After Gov. Abbott announced an end to the state mandate in March,  H-E-B said it would continue to urge customers to wear masks in stores and would offer a mask to customers who did not wear one. 

For some San Antonio restaurateurs, the change in guidance caught them off guard. Previous CDC guidance recommended customers wear masks when not actively eating and drinking, and many restaurants require servers to mask up.

On Thursday, Pete Cortez, chief operating officer of La Familia Cortez restaurants, said he wanted to meet with his team and discuss the guidance before deciding whether to change the mask-wearing policy at Mi Tierra, La Margarita, and the family’s other restaurants in San Antonio. 

Johnny Hernandez, who owns La Gloria and other food and beverage ventures, said he planned to make changes soon, but he might require employees who are not vaccinated to wear a mask. “I will need to read the recommendations carefully; nothing changes until we give this careful thought,” he said. 

At the Pearl, a spokesperson pointed to a COVID-19 response “pledge” that appeared to be rewritten sometime between Thursday and Friday and now states individual restaurateurs and shop owners to determine how they will operate their places of business. It previously required mask-wearing in those spaces. 

Matt Ratliff, Vice President of Marketing for SeaWorld San Antonio hands a facemask to a visitor. Marketing Lead, Chuck Cureau said that all of the executives at SeaWorld are working in the park during Spring Break. Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Matt Ratliff, Vice President of Marketing for SeaWorld San Antonio hands a facemask to a visitor during spring break. The park is no longer requiring visitors who are vaccinated to wear face coverings. Credit: Bria Woods/ San Antonio Report

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment said Friday it is no longer requiring visitors who are vaccinated to wear face coverings at its parks in Orlando and San Antonio. “We will not require proof of vaccine, but ask our guests to respectfully comply with our revised policy,” said the statement.

Davis Phillips, president and CEO of Phillips Entertainment, which operates tourist attractions near the Alamo, said his organization will be discussing the new guidance and had not yet made a final decision whether to continue requiring customers to wear masks. 

But Nan Palmero, marketing director at Office Furniture Liquidations, said it would no longer require employees and customers to use masks in the store. Those who prefer to wear a mask “will be welcome to do so,” Palmero said, and whenever its vaccinated workers make deliveries, they will follow the wishes of the customer. 

In two of San Antonio’s largest corporate workplaces, plans regarding mask-wearing differ. 

A USAA spokesman said the company is reviewing CDC guidance and will consider adjusting its policy, but will continue to require face masks among its 19,000 San Antonio employees when working in the office. 

At Valero, where more than 70% of its San Antonio workers are vaccinated, according to a spokeswoman, the company will begin to transition to a “mask optional” protocol starting May 17. 

Texas Health and Human Services has not changed its rules for licensed nursing facilities, where the elderly and vulnerable population was greatly impacted during the earliest months of the pandemic. All visitors must wear a face mask over their mouth and nose when visiting a resident, according to rules updated March 22. 

As for schools, no official changes to precautions put in place last year appear to be on the horizon as the traditional school year wanes. The CDC has not revised its K-12 school safety guidance.

The CDC’s Walensky said people who are immunocompromised should talk to their doctor before discarding their mask and health care facilities should continue to follow infection control protocols, such as mask-wearing. 

She also urged people to get vaccinated to avoid serious illness or death. 

“This past year has shown us that this virus can be unpredictable,” she said. “So if things get worse, there was always a chance we may need to make changes to these recommendations. But we know that the more people are vaccinated, the less cases we will have, and the less chance of a new spike or additional variants emerging.”

For information on locations to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine, click here.

Disclosure: H-E-B and its chairman, Charles Butt, are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Avatar photo

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.