After a pandemic-forced hiatus, the Memphis in May International Festival returned with the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Tom Lee Park (May 12-15). Masks were required to enter the park. Printed health and safety rules included this: "Please wear a mask at all times in common areas and/or areas where social distancing is not possible, except when actively eating or drinking. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

One week into the rescinding of the mask mandate in Shelby County and confusion about whether masks should be worn still abounds for many.

“We can understand that some people are not real sure about when they can go without a mask, now that the mandate is not in effect,” said Shelby County Health Department Medical Director Dr. Bruce Randolph.

“We have said all along that when the mask mandate is no longer in effect, then people must rely on their own sense of personal responsibility to protect themselves and other people from getting infected with COVID-19.”

Randolph touted this week’s new COVID-19 daily numbers as being great.

“Shelby County continues to do well in terms of keeping new infections down,” said Randolph. “Wednesday’s new cases were 109, and on Tuesday, the number was 62. The day before that, I think the number was 83. So I think we are doing extremely well without the countywide mask mandate.”

While new cases have significantly diminished, so has the need for massive vaccination sites. Operations at the Pipkin Building at the Fairgrounds, a federal COVID-19 vaccination site, wrapped up on Wednesday. 

City-run sites will continue to operate as Shelby County health officials reach out to those who have not yet been vaccinated. A city-run vaccination program will now operate from the Pipkin Building.

More than 340,000 people have been fully or partially vaccinated. That is nearly half of the county’s goal to get 700,000 vaccinated.

“In different groups, we’re approaching herd immunity,” said Memphis Chief Operating Officer David Sweat. “If you’re over 65 years of age in Shelby County, the likelihood is most of the people who are your peers are fully vaccinated at this point, and herd immunity has been achieved.”

Randolph said it is OK for those who have been vaccinated to go without a mask both inside and outdoors, unless:

  • Signage is posted in a business or other establishment that a mask is required before you are served.
  • Riding public transportation, that includes: buses, trains, planes, subways and ride-share services. This is a federal requirement.
  • An employer requires employees to wear a mask while working.

On Tuesday of this week, Shelby County announced that masks are required in all government facilities that are open to the public until July 11, 2021. Masks are also required in spaces regularly open to the public, such as offices and in office settings, unless one has been fully vaccinated.

The mask requirement does not apply to the Walter L. Bailey Jr. Criminal Justice Center, or the Shelby County Corrections and Detention facilities. A different executive order has been operating in those buildings since Monday (May 17). 

“Well, I can admit that I’m very confused right now,” said Merritt Bailey, owner of the Ball Hoggerz Restaurant in Orange Mound. “You really don’t know who has been vaccinated and who has not, so we haven’t been in a hurry to change things. Right now, our dining area is closed, but our patio is open. 

“If you’re eating out on the patio, you don’t need a mask,” Bailey said. “When you come inside to pick up an order, a mask is required. It will be the same policy when the dining area opens back up, at least for the time being.”

Betty Wilson is a senior who has chosen to continue wearing her mask.

“It is about my health and me feeling safe enough to stop wearing my mask,” said Wilson.

“I put my mask on before I go out of my door, and I don’t remove it until I get back in my house. I don’t have a certain date of when I will stop wearing a mask, and I’ve had both my shots. It will be when I feel comfortable going without a mask. I want to be safe.”

Evan Fields, 25, wears a mask only when she is required to wear one.

“Since they lifted the mandate, I have been going without a mask, but I keep one in my purse in case I’m going inside a business that requires a mask.

“That keeps me from being confused about when to put on a mask. I wear one now, only when required.”