Couples maintain physical distance while watching a sunset at the Sister Bay beach on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Photo by Solomon Lindenberg.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced that fully vaccinated people no longer need wear masks in most settings, Door County Public Health officer Susan Powers said Tuesday she is confident in the agency’s decision-making and cautiously optimistic about the summer tourism season when it comes to Covid-19.

The CDC’s announcement has been met with surprise and some uncertainty nationwide, as it came when less than half of Americans have been fully vaccinated.

The change in guidance was based on an increasing number of studies showing that the Covid-19 vaccines are effective at preventing mild and severe illness and death, Powers said. Masks still are recommended for everyone in public indoor settings including schools, doctors’ offices, jails, homeless shelters and public transportation.

“In the past few weeks, the data has shown vaccines work in the real world,” Powers said. “It seems they stand up to the variants, and vaccinated people are less likely to get and transmit the virus.”

Powers said the change also is intended to provide an incentive for people to get vaccinated. She said she is concerned about declining numbers of people getting vaccinated during the past few weeks.

But the CDC’s announcement has raised questions about whether allowing vaccinated people to go without masks will lead to more unvaccinated people doing the same, possibly increasing the spread of Covid-19.

Powers said it’s likely the CDC took that into account before changing its guidance.

“I think that is a really valid concern that myself and others share,” she said. “Certainly the experts have thought of that before they made the recommendation. They still deemed that we were safe to do this.”

“People are just kind of scratching their head going, ‘Is it safe?’”

Steve Jenkins, Door County Economic Development Corporation executive director

Door County businesses are proceeding cautiously when it comes to lifting their requirements that customers wear masks, Door County Economic Development Corporation executive director Steve Jenkins said Monday. Some businesses have lifted those requirements, while others plan to leave them in place, he said.

“From what we’re seeing and hearing, many businesses are going to continue to require masking simply because they can’t determine who’s vaccinated and who’s not vaccinated,” Jenkins said.

“People are just kind of scratching their head going, ‘Is it safe?’” he added.

Powers said she has not heard from businesses since the CDC announcement, but she said Public Health supports any business that continues to require or encourage mask-wearing among its customers.

“There’s more concern when it’s more people in a smaller space indoors,” Powers said. “If I worked at a retail establishment, I would ask people to continue to mask, just from that standpoint, to be cautious.”

Concerns about the spread of Covid-19 are heightened as summer approaches, bringing with it an influx of seasonal residents and tourists. The major metrics that Public Health uses to track Covid-19 in the county, such as new cases and the state’s disease activity level designation, do not account for non-residents.

Powers said Public Health accounts for that gap in part by keeping an eye on Covid-19 data in areas from which a lot of Door County visitors come, such as other parts of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. If the spike in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations that Michigan saw earlier this spring had happened in July, for example, Public Health staff would have been worried, Powers said.

If a visitor to Door County tests positive for Covid-19 after returning home, the public health office in that person’s home county or jurisdiction should notify Door County Public Health, Powers said. That didn’t always happen last year because of the number of cases that health officials had to process every day, she said.

“I readily admit it isn’t a perfect system – last summer everybody was overwhelmed,” Powers said. “I think we’ll be hearing about those things (this year).”

Leaders urge patience, respect as summer approaches

Jenkins expressed some skepticism about the uncertainty businesses and customers will face when it comes to who is vaccinated.

“We’re leaving a lot of this up to the honor system, and I don’t know how that’s going to go,” he said.

Jenkins also reiterated concerns that a relaxation of masking rules for vaccinated people could lead to some unvaccinated people also no longer wearing masks.

“People take advantage and just do kind of what they want to do,” he said. “Particularly after 15 months of this, people are just done with it.”

But both Powers and Jenkins urged people to be patient and to respect mask rules at businesses and indoor settings.

“I’m just hoping  – and we’re all preaching this up here – have patience, understanding, try to accommodate differences of opinion,” Jenkins said.

“People have learned how to keep themselves safe. Hopefully we’ll continue to do that.”

Susan Powers, Door County Public Health officer

Powers said she’s hopeful and optimistic that the county’s disease activity would be minimally affected by any unvaccinated people who do not wear masks. She pointed out that Door County has several things in its favor in terms of containing the spread of Covid-19.

“A lot of us are vaccinated, and that’s increasing,” Powers said. “In summer, more of us are outside. People have learned how to keep themselves safe. Hopefully we’ll continue to do that.”

Powers said she also is hopeful that people will not take risks such as holding large, indoor and maskless gatherings, which she called “the worst, the most risky scenario.” She said staff members at some venues who checked in with her before the CDC announcement were not planning any such events and were taking a cautious approach.

“I don’t see them abandoning those plans,” Powers said. “None of us want to create a problem more than there is with Covid.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she added. “I also have a real appreciation for that this is our livelihood in Door County.”

Jenkins said he hopes Door County visitors this summer will respect businesses’ mask rules.

“If they say mask, then please mask up,” he said. “I’m hoping everyone will respect that request and not get impatient or angry.”

Vaccination clinics continue; county among leaders statewide

Public Health continues to offer a vaccination clinic every Wednesday at the Aging and Disability Resource Center building in Sturgeon Bay, Powers said. It also is offering a Sister Bay clinic every three weeks. The Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available at both locations.

The clinics currently require appointments, but Powers said Public Health might change that in the coming weeks to allow walk-in vaccinations as supplies last. Public Health staffers also have been trying to find ways to encourage younger residents to get vaccinated, Powers said.

Several pharmacies in the county and the Bellin Health clinic in Sturgeon Bay also are offering Covid-19 vaccines, Powers said, and Door County Medical Center has added some clinics specifically for teenagers.

Door County continues to be among the leaders in vaccination rate among all Wisconsin counties, according to state data.

It leads the state with 56.7 percent of its population (or 15,685 people) fully vaccinated. That compares to 39.8 percent statewide, and 37.8 percent nationwide.

Door County narrowly comes in second when it comes to the percentage of its population that has received at least one vaccine dose. That number in Door County is 61.4 percent (16,985 people), compared to Dane County’s 63.6 percent. Statewide, 45.7 percent of people have received at least one vaccine dose; nationwide, the figure is 47.9 percent.