Since the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government has stated that its recommendations would be guided by the data at any given time, even if that meant occasionally taking a backward step. (Of course, to what extent that's actually happened is up for debate.) Now, with the Delta variant continuing to drive an uptick in COVID-19 cases, be prepared to mask up again at restaurants. The CDC is backtracking on its most recent mask guidance, suggesting that even fully vaccinated people should "wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission."
In theory, the new guidance — which was updated yesterday and represents an about-face from May when the CDC stated that that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask in most indoor settings — should have far-reaching effects: Currently, the CDC's COVID Data Tracker shows that over 63 percent of U.S. counties fall into the "high" or "substantial" levels of community transmission. And those percentages have grown over the past seven days.
"This pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a press briefing according to CNBC. "Today, we have new science related to the Delta variant that requires us to update the guidance regarding what you can do when you are fully vaccinated." Specifically, she stated that the Delta variant was "uniquely different from past strains of the virus," including the belief that even vaccinated people who carry the Delta variant "may be contagious and spread the virus to others."
Importantly, this guidance is only a recommendation leaving any further mandates up to state and local governments. And though some areas like Los Angeles have recently re-instituted indoor mask requirements, it's hard to imagine that, having come this far, indoor dining would get shut down once again. So far the recommendations don't call for that, however, it's not impossible that localized spread, vaccination rates, and other conditions could potentially see the return of dining restrictions in some areas.
Still, increased fear about the Delta variant could be enough to hurt the hospitality industry's recovery regardless. Michelle Meyer, chief U.S. economist for Bank of America, told CBS News that rising cases and a backpedaling CDC could make customers more reluctant to dine out. She specifically cited a situation this spring where cases in Michigan surged but the state's economy remained opened: Spending at bars and restaurants still decreased. "That's one place where the pull-back could be most visible," she said.