As the highly transmissible delta Covid variant continues to spread rapidly across the United States and elsewhere around the world, scientists and other health experts are warning that indoor mask mandates and other public health measures will likely make a return in the U.S. this fall.
The country, which just celebrated the Fourth of July with some of its first large gatherings in more than a year, is headed toward a “dangerous” fall season when delta is expected to cause another surge in new coronavirus cases, health experts say. Already the dominant variant in the U.S., delta will hit the states with the lowest vaccination rates the hardest — unless those states and businesses reintroduce mask rules, capacity limits and other public health measures that they’ve largely rolled back in recent months, experts say.
With new mutations discovered every few weeks, many scientists now predict that Covid will continue circulating around the world for at least the next two to three years, requiring nations to reinstitute public health measures on an ad hoc basis for the foreseeable future. Authorities in Australia, South Africa and Asia have recently reintroduced curfews or other measures to curb rising delta outbreaks. Japan just declared a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and banned spectators at the Olympics. High vaccination rates in the U.S. and the warm summer months have bought the country some extra time, but outbreaks across the world are giving Americans a preview of what may come this fall.
“I could foresee that in certain parts of the country, there could be a reintroduction of indoor mask mandates, distancing and occupancy limits” in the coming months, said Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.
He said he fears there will be “major outbreaks” in the U.S. this fall, especially in states with low vaccination rates.
“We are heading for a very dangerous fall, with large swaths of the country still unvaccinated, a surging delta variant and people taking off their masks,” Gostin added.
The warning from scientists and other health experts comes as many businesses and offices across the U.S. have largely done away with their mask requirements, social distancing and other pandemic-related restrictions.
Almost immediately after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in most indoor settings in mid-May, Walmart and Costco followed suit, allowing fully vaccinated customers and employees to go maskless unless required by state or local laws. Likewise, Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers union late last month agreed to make face masks optional for employees who are fully vaccinated.
There will be “two Americas,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician and vaccine advocate who has served on advisory panels for both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. “There is the vaccinated America and the unvaccinated America, and I think the unvaccinated America is about to pay a price for that.”