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California dropped its statewide mask mandate, but some counties are keeping it

DON GONYEA, HOST:

California has dropped its statewide indoor mask mandate for people who have been vaccinated, but a few counties are keeping the rules up. And as Lesley McClurg of member station KQED explains, that's leaving some Californians cold.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Inside a quaint bookstore in Palo Alto, Alex Papoulias is busily hanging large new signs. Bold capital letters remind customers to mask up.

ALEX PAPOULIAS: Because people have already been asking, like, do I have to have this now?

MCCLURG: Papoulias is the assistant manager of Books Inc. He says he's braced for pushback on Santa Clara County's decision to require everyone, even people with vaccines, to wear a mask inside.

PAPOULIAS: We don't want our bookstore being, like, a political showdown place. We do believe in the mask mandate.

MCCLURG: He says even if officials eventually do drop the requirement, his shop will likely still require employees to wear masks.

PAPOULIAS: We have a - kind of a small public space that's indoors, and we need to keep people safe.

MCCLURG: The bookstore is located in an upscale shopping center, and here, nearly everyone I talked to was relieved to keep their masks on.

ALICIA MICHALEK: I wear it eight hours a day, so it's become a part of me.

MCCLURG: Alicia Michalek manages a greeting card shop.

MICHALEK: I want to be as protected as possible.

MCCLURG: County officials say that's the right thinking, given current case rates.

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SARA CODY: We still have very high levels of community transmission.

MCCLURG: Sara Cody is the director of Public Health in Santa Clara. At a recent press conference, speaking from behind a K95 mask, Cody stressed that face coverings are a key safety layer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CODY: We are concerned about members in our community who are vulnerable, and we don't want to leave them behind. If you're still at risk of omicron because of your age or your medical condition, we want you to feel like you can be in public, too.

MCCLURG: But protecting the collective is not swaying everyone. Some people I talked to at a strip mall in the city of Milpitas were outraged by the county's decision.

AARON THOMAS: I feel like it's very, very unfair. You know, the protocols need to be the same because this is still the East Bay.

MCCLURG: Aaron Thomas is outside a Safeway gathering signatures for progressive causes. He pulls down his army camo mask and shakes his head.

THOMAS: I'm ready. I'm tired of this mask.

CJ ERICKSON: You should see me when I go to a store or somewhere I have to go in. I have my mask in my hand all the way to the door, opening the door, put it on. Go in, get what I need, open the door, rip it off.

MCCLURG: C.J. Erickson says she's done her part. She's boosted. When she's doing errands in Milpitas, she's ready to ditch her mask, not just because it's uncomfortable, but because it's bad for business.

ERICKSON: I think it's going to ruin the economy in Santa Clara County because everybody is going to go elsewhere because they don't have to wear their mask.

MCCLURG: Will you shop other places?

ERICKSON: Yes, I will. I've already made a lunch date for next week in Fremont so I don't have to wear my mask.

MCCLURG: She's also convinced her hairdresser to come to her house to avoid sitting in a salon masked up. But her main beef with masks is emotional.

ERICKSON: I just miss seeing people smile.

CONLEY OWENS: You know, it takes a lot of emotional energy to try to express yourself from behind a mask, and it just kind of deadens everything.

MCCLURG: Conley Owens is a pastor at Silicon Valley Reform Baptist Church. He says his job is a lot harder when his congregation is behind masks because he can't read the crowd. The singing is muffled, and he says the overall mood is colder.

OWENS: The idea is that there is something sanctified about a warmth and an intimacy of greeting in churches. And so we lose these things, and we believe that we have a biblical command to pursue them.

MCCLURG: But it'll be a few more weeks before Owens can ditch his mask. Officials in Santa Clara are waiting until cases drop and hospitalizations stabilize to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated people. Models suggest that could unfold by early March.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Santa Clara County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.