CHAMPAIGN — If you’ve seen more people out shopping without face coverings lately, you’re not alone.
While a state order has been in effect since Aug. 30 to wear face masks in stores, restaurants and other public places, not everyone is paying attention.
That’s despite a currently high COVID-19 transmission, the threat of a new variant, thousands of people remaining unvaccinated and waning vaccine protection for those who haven’t gotten booster shots.
Vermilion County Health Department Administrator Doug Toole said he knows stores and restaurants have signs up reminding customers about the face covering requirement, but he’s noticed fewer and fewer people actually wearing masks.
“Hopefully,” he said, that’s because they’re fully vaccinated, have gotten booster shots and feel like they’re more protected.
Asked about a noticeable number of shoppers without face coverings at Champaign’s Market Place Mall over the holiday weekend, General Manager Dennis Robertson said there are signs at every mall entrance reminding shoppers that masks are required.
Still, he said, “I did observe over the holiday weekend a higher percentage of people who were not wearing the mask.”
How masking is handled at various stores in the mall continues to be up to individual stores, Robertson said.
“Our expectation is that people do wear masks,” he said.
The mall continues to have public safety employees making masks available to anyone who needs one, but traffic was high over the holiday weekend — so much that it wasn’t possible to offer face masks to everyone, Robertson said.
While mask compliance is high in some stores, it’s not just the mall where some shoppers are going mask-free.
A number of shoppers inside Hobby Lobby, Champaign, were also observed without masks. The chain’s corporate office didn’t respond to an inquiry about that on Monday.
Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Deputy Administrator Awais Vaid said it may be that some people shopping in Champaign County without masks live in surrounding counties where masking hasn’t been well-enforced.
Both he and public health district Administrator Julie Pryde said they were in Chicago recently and noticed a very high control over and compliance with masking in that area.
Three major reasons why masking continues to be important now, Vaid said:
- COVID-19 transmission is high. In Champaign County alone, there were 223 new cases Sunday and Monday combined, and the number of active cases has remained in the 900 range.
- Masks offer “significant” protection and will also protect against the new omicron variant, which may already be in the U.S. The Illinois Department of Public Health has begun genome sequencing COVID-19 tests on a random basis to determine if the variant is in Illinois, Vaid said.
- Not only are thousands of people in the area still unvaccinated, the protection from COVID-19 vaccination is waning for those six months or more past their second shots if they haven’t yet gotten booster shots, Vaid said.
This past July, 10 to 12 percent of the COVID-19 cases in Champaign County were among fully vaccinated people, but as of this month, that percentage has risen to 25 percent of the cases, he said.
“That’s telling us that immunity is waning,” Vaid said.
Toole said of the 149 new cases in his county from part of the past weekend, 10 were among fully vaccinated people, and three of the 10 were hospitalized.
Given all those factors, continued masking and social distancing and getting vaccinated — and for the vaccinated, getting booster shots — remain important, according to Vaid and Toole.
Boosters are recommended for everyone 18 and older and at least six months past their second Pfizer or Moderna shots and at least two months past the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine.
Vaid said he understands the fatigue people are feeling about masking.
But since it offers protection, “why not use it?” he said.
Not only will masking offer protection against COVID-19, Toole said, it will also help protect people from the flu and some other illnesses.
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has received complaints about violations of the state masking order but doesn’t have the resources to police the order, officials said.
Vaid said it’s up to every business to make it known that the masking order remains in effect, though he cautioned employees not to go beyond a gentle reminder.
“We don’t want them arguing with customers,” he said.