by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Toni Westland remembered an airport scene with some people choosing to wear masks before boarding a crowded plane.
At the time, the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge ranger saw the concept as foreign. But that foreign concept soon turned common as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended face coverings in public at the beginning of the pandemic last year to help slow down the spread of COVID-19.
Now, the CDC said those same masks can be left behind by those who have been fully vaccinated against the virus, meaning two weeks after receiving the final dose. With these new guidelines, vaccinated citizens have a choice. Mask, or no mask.
Businesses on Sanibel also have a choice.
On May 4, Sanibel’s declared State of Emergency expired, which required the wearing of face coverings on the island. Mayor Holly Smith explained that the islands’ businesses can now choose whether or not to require masks and social distancing in their establishments, even if customers are vaccinated, which is in line with the new CDC guidelines.
“We encourage everyone to follow what the CDC guidelines say,” Smith said. “If they say to stay six feet apart, then we will encourage that.”
The new CDC guidelines reads that those who have been fully vaccinated “can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
The CDC also says it is known that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing the disease, as well as reducing the spread of it. However, the effectiveness of the vaccine against certain variants of the virus is still unknown, and the CDC is unsure of how long the vaccine protects people.
With this, some establishments on Sanibel still require visitors to wear masks and stay physically distant from others while inside. Two of these establishments are the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
Stephanie Muddell, the shell museum’s director of marketing, said masks are still required in the museum as a high level of precaution for the safety of its visitors, staff and volunteers.
At CROW, Brian Bohlman, the clinic’s public relations & marketing director, said masks are required by those in the Visitor Education Center to prevent the spread of the virus between not only people, but animals as well.
“There is still a lot that is unknown about its transmission from human to animal, but we do know that it is possible to spread it from human to animal,” Bohlman described via email. “So, for the sake of our animals who are unable to wear masks, we ask that visitors wear them while in our Visitor Education Center.”
But these establishments are indoors, which has enclosed air flow and ventilation, potentially leading to a more rapid spread of COVID-19 compared to outdoor environments, according to the CDC.
At the Ding Darling Refuge, masks are encouraged, not required, especially indoors where physical distancing is harder.
But with the majority of the over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks on the refuge being outdoors, fully vaccinated visitors can enjoy the refuge safely and mask free.