June Leffler Published

Easing Into A Maskless West Virginia

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Recent weekends on Capitol Street in downtown Charleston have been active. At Capital Market last Saturday, people pushed shopping carts at the open-air market, looking for plants to fill their gardens this summer. The city blocked off much of the street for outdoor dining. A jazz band played for those eating. Couples went out for ice cream and coffee.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
June Leffler/ WVPB
Shoppers browse for indoor and outdoor plants at Capitol Market in Charleston.

There was a line outside of local bakery Charleston Bread. Patti Salisbury, 62, ordered fresh cookies for a church celebration the next day.

“They’re still apparently having their limited capacity inside, which is okay with me,” she said.

Even now, after the state occupancy guidelines and mask mandate went away, the store is only welcoming a few customers at a time. But Salisbury doesn’t mind.

“I plan to still wear my mask unless I’m in a setting where I know people have been vaccinated,” she said.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
June Leffler/ WVPB
Customers wait in line for baked goods outside Charleston Bread.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that masks are now optional for those who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. That goes for both outdoor and indoor spaces.

Gov. Jim Justice signed an executive order last Friday, aligning state’s mask mandate with the new CDC recommendations. He said it was a step towards normalcy, and hoped it would encourage more people to get vaccinated.

Further down Capitol Street, bookstore clerk Ann Elizabeth Korwan smiled at everyone who walked into Taylor Books.

“If you’re fully vaccinated you don’t have to wear a mask in here, but obviously you can if you want to,” she said. “And if you’re not fully vaxxed, we ask that you still wear a mask for us”.

Korwan’s not checking vaccine cards at the front door. It’s a simple honor system. But Korwan admits the switch is a little awkward.

“It was a little weird at first, and I still feel weird not wearing a mask right now, cause I’ve been wearing it here for so long,” she said. “I’m still getting used to it.”

Across the street, at a used clothing shop called the Consignment Company, owner Tammy Krepshaw is more nervous.

“I just took my mask sign down, that it’s not mandatory, but that’s not really how I feel,” she said.

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June Leffler / WVPB
June Leffler / WVPB
Tammy Krepshaw owns Consignment Company, a gently used women’s apparel store in downtown Charleston.

Private businesses can set their own pace on when to get rid of masks. It’s their prerogative. But the sudden news from the CDC was confusing for Krepshaw. It created more uncertainties.

“I don’t know what’s best for the business. Am I going to lose customers [if] they have to wear a mask? I’m still struggling to get my feet on the ground from the past year,” she said.

Corporate stores are pivoting, too. Walmart is giving its customers and vaxxed employees the option to go without a mask. Same goes for Target and CVS, though both just announced the changes Monday. Kroger has said its stores are keeping their mask policies in place nationwide for the time being.

But, last Saturday, almost every shopper wore a mask at big box retailer stores in the Southridge Center in Charleston. Even those that said they’re over masks altogether.

“I’ve been vaccinated, but even if I hadn’t, I’m in favor of removing the masks,” said Candace Thompson, 32, as she approached the Walmart store. “I’m just not that worried about it.”

“I’m glad that they have told us we can take them off, because they smother me. I have asthma,” said Linda McCallister, 77, who was shopping for plants outside Lowes.

Those shoppers might have grown a disdain for masks over the past year. Others see the potential to move forward.

“If you trust the vaccination, then it should be okay,” said William Simmons, 22, as he exited Lowes.

“I think if you want to encourage vaccination, you have to eliminate the mask mandate for those who have been vaccinated, because otherwise people don’t see any change,” said Ghassan Dagher, 72, leaving Walmart.

Just like the transition into wearing masks one year ago felt foreign, the transition away from them is bound to be awkward in its own way.

There’s still plenty of situations where people will need a mask, like visiting a hospital or riding public transit.