For the first time in more than a year, Scot Sauer propped open the door to his laundromat Friday and didn’t immediately reach for a mask to pin behind his ears.
He greeted a customer with a smile on his face, telling the man he didn’t need his surgical mask but could wear it if he wanted to. The man shrugged and deposited his clothes into a machine at the back of the business.
“I’m super glad it’s finally ending,” Sauer, the owner of Surf N Suds laundromat in Newark, said Friday, after recalling the early days of the pandemic he spent shining an ultraviolet light on every corner of his store.
With coronavirus infections down and new data confirming the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, Delawareans are no longer required to wear a face mask in many public settings, and Delaware businesses no longer face capacity or distancing restrictions.
The state says unvaccinated individuals should continue to wear masks and social distance, but the state will not be enforcing that policy.
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For some, ditching their masks when the new rules went into effect Friday signified the beginning of the end of the pandemic and brought a feeling of normalcy that alluded them for months. For others, who plan to continue wearing masks, Friday was not a milestone but another day.
The first day without a mask mandate also revealed the patchwork of policies Delawareans will now contend with. Under the state’s updated guidance, businesses can institute their own mask-wearing rules.
Doors down from Sauer’s laundromat, Park N Shop Liquors owner Pavan Patel would like to continue requiring masks, but after the state’s changes, he doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to enforce a mandate.
“If the government says you don’t have to, who am I to say you have to?” Patel said through a light pink KN-95 mask. “They’re going to look at me different: ‘Why are you enforcing these rules?’ I want to keep everyone safe. We’re just trying to be nice. We’re trying to help everyone else out.”
Patel said when he asked a customer without a mask Friday morning if he had one, the customer left the store. He plans to put up a sign asking shoppers to wear masks but isn’t sure how he’ll enforce the rule.
“I’ve been arguing with people for months,” he said.
Wearing a blue surgical mask, Yanique Dunn pulled out a light blue container of Clorox wipes to clean a shopping cart before going into the BJ’s in Pencader Plaza near Newark.
“To each their own, but I’m going to keep wearing mine until I’m comfortable,” Dunn said.
Dunn isn’t vaccinated but is planning on getting the shot. She wants to see if the virus will further mutate and change, leading to another spike, before she stops wearing a mask in public.
More than half of Delawareans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but vaccination rates have slowed over the past few weeks. Uptake has been greatest in Sussex County, where more than 60% of residents 16 and older have received at least one shot.
Bob Powers returned to work Friday for the first time in 11 months. He’s a front-end manager at Weis Markets in Rehoboth Beach and came back to work after he was fully vaccinated and could greet customers without a mask.
“It’s great,” Powers said. “It’s like a freedom, really.”
Walking through the produce section without a mask, longtime Rehoboth Beach resident Robin Schunk said he was walking downtown earlier and enjoyed seeing families laughing and smiling.
If anyone questions whether he’s been vaccinated, he shows them a rubber bracelet he bought online that says “COVID-19 Vaccinated.”
“I feel like I’m not in prison (anymore),” he said.
Others in the store, like Rehoboth Beach resident Linda Crowe, continued to wear masks while shopping. Whether she’s at a restaurant or shopping at the outlets, Crowe said she will wear a mask whenever a business requests it.
“I just say follow what the company wants you to do; that’s my feeling,” she said. “It’s not a lifetime thing.”
Sitting on a bench at the Rehoboth boardwalk eating some boardwalk french fries, two high school seniors, Cocoa Houck and Maliyah Saldona from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said they don’t think they’ll completely stop wearing masks.
But they noticed a difference Friday afternoon compared with last year, saying the enforcement of masks isn’t as “uptight.” It’s a good sign, they said, for the upcoming months.
“I’m excited for it, that things will be looser,” Houck said. “Because I feel like we’ll have more of a summer then.”
One group of college students who were visiting the beach for the day said the scene on the avenue – where large traffic signs reminded visitors to wear masks on the boardwalk and when difficult to social distance – didn’t look too different from their hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where some people have chosen to not wear masks for a while now.
They decided not to wear masks on Rehoboth Avenue because everyone in their group was vaccinated, but they agreed that they were wary about how quickly the mask mandate changed.
“I kind of wish that they would have kept the masks for a little bit longer,” Bella Cline said.
The foot traffic in downtown Dover on Friday afternoon consisted mostly of people either not wearing a mask or wearing it on their chin. Most entering businesses would still put on a mask.
Donnell Fears, Dover promoter and salon owner, was standing outside his shop, taking what he called a “recess” from wearing his mask. He thinks lifting the mask mandate has come too soon, especially with many people still hesitant to get the vaccine.
“I don’t think the world is ready,” he said. “I understand the eagerness of people wanting to get back to some sense of normalcy, but at the same time, we have to be mindful of the safety of others.”
He plans to continue wearing his mask inside and follow other precautions the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, but masks won’t be required in his salon anymore. Social distancing will still be in place.
“I encourage everyone to just be safe. Be mindful of others,” he said.