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Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated mask guidance, informing those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 that they no longer need to wear masks nor socially distance–indoors or outdoors. The Always Essential coalition is concerned by guidance that seems premature, shortsighted, and increases health and safety risks to essential workers across sectors. 

As a result of the CDC’s decision, companies including Walmart, Target, Costco, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s announced they would lift mask requirements for vaccinated workers and customers in states without an ongoing mask mandate, but will not request or require proof of vaccination.

Relying on an honor system puts essential workers at continued grave risk. These essential workers have kept our country and our economy going, putting their and their family’s health and safety in jeopardy, too often without any recognition or reward, while corporate CEOs and shareholders pocketed the profits. While vaccination rates continue to increase–including vaccination rates for essential workers–too many of those on the frontlines remain unvaccinated. Lifting mask mandates now puts those workers at serious risk for infection or worse. 

The CDC’s latest guidance reiterates Always Essential’s earlier call for vaccine prioritization for essential workers. We must ensure essential workers–especially those in BIPOC communities, where vaccine access remains a challenge–receive access to the vaccine and the paid time off needed to recover from possible side effects. Essential workers must also have a seat at the table before companies unilaterally make decisions on issues like mask mandates–the very issues that have a direct impact on the health and safety of essential workers. 

Lifting the mask requirements also reiterates the need for an Essential Workers Bills of Rights at the federal, state, and local levels. We must codify the protections essential workers need in order to have a safe workplace, where working people must be able to negotiate better outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic and well beyond.

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ALWAYS ESSENTIAL is working people, activists, and organizations joining together to transform what’s possible for essential workers — especially those in low-wage sectors who are disproportionately Black and other workers of color. We are working in cities, counties, states, and at the federal level to put essential workers first and build the lasting change we want to see.