Will the CDC's New Mask Guidelines Help Get the Jobless Back to Work?

by Maurie Backman | Published on July 28, 2021

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Three masked professionals interviewing masked woman in office setting.

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The CDC has changed course on its mask recommendations. Here's how that could impact the jobs market.

In May, the CDC made a bold announcement that was a source of celebration for a lot of people: The fully vaccinated could ditch their masks in indoor settings. The logic behind that decision was that vaccines offer a large degree of protection, so much so that the fully vaccinated are not only unlikely to get sick themselves, but also, they're unlikely to pick up enough virus to transmit COVID-19 to others.

That was before the Delta variant emerged, though. Now, the Delta variant accounts for the overwhelming majority of U.S. COVID-19 cases, and in recent weeks, the outbreak has soared on a national level.

In an effort to put out that fire, the CDC has revised its recommendations on mask-wearing. It's now saying that fully vaccinated people should, in fact, wear masks in indoor settings in areas with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates. And unfortunately, that represents almost two-thirds of the country.

Now this may not be the news the fully vaccinated want to hear, especially after having spent the past couple of months enjoying a bit more freedom. But it could help a lot of local businesses solve their labor shortages.

Could new mask guidance prompt more job applications?

Many states have been grappling with labor shortages since the end of spring, so much so that 26 states have attempted to pull the plug on boosted unemployment benefits ahead of their early September expiration date. Many lawmakers have been convinced that the reason people aren't getting back to work is that they're collecting an extra $300 a week in unemployment, and as such, they don't need to go out and earn a paycheck. Also, some lower-wage earners may make more money on boosted unemployment than they would at a job.

But those opposed to pulling boosted benefits have argued that the extra $300 a week isn't the only thing keeping people out of the labor force. For many, the hesitation to get a job has stemmed from COVID-19 fears.

Once the CDC declared that people could go mask free, it opened the door to both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated to take advantage of that option. And for many unemployed workers, the idea of taking a customer-facing job at a time when masks weren't being recommended or enforced didn't sit well.

Now that the CDC has changed its guidance, more businesses could start to mandate masks again. Furthermore, individual municipalities may opt to enforce masking in public indoor spaces. Los Angeles and St. Louis, for example, are both requiring people to wear masks indoors in public. If more states follow their lead, it could make for a safer return to the workforce at a time when the spread of COVID-19 doesn't seem to be slowing down.

In addition to recommending masks for adults, the CDC now says that all K-12 school attendees should wear a mask, regardless of their vaccination status. That could, in turn, help prevent outbreaks at school, which is essential for workers who have children who aren't old enough to look after themselves. Many working parents count on school to serve as childcare. By enforcing masks, schools can minimize their chances of having to shut down to deal with outbreaks.

What about more stimulus aid?

Many people were hoping that things would continuously improve with regard to the pandemic as the summer went on. Instead, the country seems to have taken a step backward. And that begs the question -- will the emergence of the Delta variant and surging cases make the case for a fourth stimulus check? And will boosted unemployment get extended beyond early September in light of the way things have shifted?

It's too soon to know the answer to those questions. While Americans shouldn't expect another stimulus payment to hit their bank accounts and people without jobs shouldn't anticipate additional weeks of boosted benefits, at this point, it's premature to say that either option is definitely off the table.

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