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Vaccinated Sonoma County residents in no hurry to shed their masks

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

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Sitting on a park bench at Healdsburg Plaza, Lisa Budesa and her sister Julie Young spent Tuesday afternoon in dappled shade and soft breezes, listening to a local musician playing guitar in the nearby gazebo.

Budesa, 65, of Forestville, and Young, 61, of Petaluma, both wore face masks, even though they didn’t have to.

On Tuesday, federal health officials eased guidelines for Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, saying they no longer have to cover their faces outdoors unless they are in a large crowd of strangers.

Budesa and Young, who are fully vaccinated, said they’re in no hurry to get rid of their masks.

“I’m going to keep wearing it to be safe. I’m just so used to wearing it by now,” Budesa said. “But if I’m out on a stroll and there are no people around, I would lean towards not wearing it.”

The new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes at a time when new cases of COVID-19 are on the decline locally and in many parts of the country, particularly across California. Even states like Michigan hit hard by a spring virus surge have seen new daily cases drop in the past two weeks.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday California would align with the CDC’s new mask guidance, calling it a “common-sense” update. Newsom said in a statement that California has administered more than 28 million vaccine doses to immunize residents against the pandemic disease, with 6 million shots going to disadvantaged communities.

But he said many Californians have not yet been vaccinated and COVID-19 variants continue to be a threat. “We need to remain vigilant and continue public health prevention measures — like wearing masks when appropriate and getting vaccinated — but the light at the end of this tunnel has never been brighter,” Newsom said.

Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said the CDC’s latest guidance is based on an ever-growing body of evidence that shows the risk of contracting the infectious disease outdoors is very low. He said he hopes the loosening of mask rules will serve as an incentive for those who have not yet been vaccinated.

“If it encourages 5% more people to get vaccinated, that’s going to be very important,” Swartzberg said. “We’re reaching that point in our society where those people who really wanted to get vaccinated have been vaccinated. And now it’s a more difficult nut to crack.”

At Howarth Park in Santa Rosa, most people out for a walk, run or bike ride wore masks Tuesday afternoon. Like Budesa and Young, several people who were fully vaccinated said they would continue to don facial coverings, despite the CDC’s new recommendation.

Suzanne Alverio, 61, of Santa Rosa said she would not want to send the wrong message to others who may not know that she’s inoculated against COVID-19. Alverio received her second inoculation on April 21.

“How do you know if someone is vaccinated unless they wear a button?” she said.

Alverio’s walking companion Susan Saludes, 62, of Santa Rosa said she also intends to wear a mask outdoors as an added precaution. Saludes became fully vaccinated in February.

“I just do it out of respect for others ... and for people’s health,” she said.

In Sonoma County, face coverings were mandated on April 17, 2020, two weeks after Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, recommended everyone wear face coverings.

Mase said Tuesday that numerous studies have shown wearing masks is highly effective at curtailing the spread of the virus.

“Besides vaccination, it’s probably the most effective method of slowing transmission of COVID,” she said.

Mase warned that the CDC’s new message should not be taken as a sign that the pandemic is over. Surges of infections continue to ravage other parts of the country and world, including India, where new cases are skyrocketing.

“The message is look at India and let’s be careful,” she said. “We don’t know yet what path this virus will take in the U.S. I’m optimistic because we’ve vaccinated close to 70% of our population with at least one dose.”

According to the CDC’s new guidelines, fully vaccinated people can ditch the mask if they’re walking, running, hiking or biking, either alone or with members of their household, or in small outdoor gatherings.

The CDC said that since the risk of contracting the virus outdoors is so low, even unvaccinated people can walk, run, or bike with household members, without wearing a mask.

But the federal agency said people not vaccinated should wear a mask if they are: attending small, outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people; dining at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households; or attending a crowded, outdoor event like a live performance, parade or sports event.

The CDC still recommends everyone wear masks for all activities indoors other than in their own household, including dining, church services, attending movie theaters, shopping and at hair salons or barbers.

Swartzberg stressed that the simple act of wearing a mask is still the best tool to prevent getting infected by the coronavirus and infecting others.

“If the message from the CDC prompts people, particularly unvaccinated people, to stop wearing their masks when they should be, this message will have been a disservice,“ he said.

At least on Tuesday in two areas of Sonoma County, that did not appear to be the case.

At the Healdsburg Plaza, local musician Gillian Grogan sat without a mask in a parked van playing her guitar, quietly singing to herself. Grogan, who got her second shot about a month ago, said she’ll also continue wearing a mask when outside even though she’s fully vaccinated.

“I feel so safe. I want everyone to feel safe,” Grogan said. “I support the mask culture.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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