Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to say it's safe for vaccinated people to go without masks in most settings. Shortly after, a number of major retailers including Walmart, Costco, and Starbucks lifted mask requirements for customers and employees who are fully vaccinated. The retailers will rely on an unspoken honor system in which they trust that unmasked employees and customers have received a jab.

The CDC's decisions over the past year have encountered plenty of backlash for causing mass confusion for individuals and businesses. But one thing has been made clear with this last set of guidelines: It's OK to ignore them.

That's not to say throw all your health protocols out the window. Generally, the CDC's guidelines on protecting workplaces are sound. They encourage public health safety. But the latest changes also contain an important caveat: They leave it up to individuals, vaccinated or not, to decide if they want to ditch their masks--and you really can't be sure that they're telling the truth unless you check vaccine cards.

That means switching your company policies suddenly in response to the most recent announcement could put employees and customers who have yet to get vaccinated at risk of infection. While you may be desperate to get back to business as usual, the timing is not right if you're putting the health of employees and others at risk. That's why it's crucial in this time of particular uncertainty to remember that guidance is just that, guidance--it's more important to stick to local and state guidelines and do what's best for your community first.

Think local first. 

State and local guidelines should be first priority because safety largely depends on location, culture, and potential rate of spread in your area. In many towns, it may be acceptable to walk around maskless because the risk of spread is small. In densely populated places hit hard by Covid-19, such as New York City, more people are clinging to masks, and customers may feel more comfortable to seeing a "masks required" sign in a window, even as mandates lift. 

"There is no mandate to take it off. What we're saying is, now this is safe," CDC director Rochelle Walensky said on Fox News Sunday. "Work at your own speed, work with your own family and your own businesses to remove them when necessary."

Many states, such as Texas and Arizona, no longer require masks in public while others, including Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, said they will adjust their rules to follow the agency's new guidance. Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California are among those keeping mandates--for the time being.

So take your time figuring out what policies work best for you and your community; don't feel pressured to change policies suddenly because of the CDC's guidance. The CDC keeps records of how many people per state and county have received vaccines. Before deciding on a policy, see how many of your employees have received both vaccines. You can also check local guidelines and vaccination rates to see how many people in your community have been vaccinated against Covid-19 to help with decision making, and share that information with employees.

Employees could be at risk.

Sticking to an honor system could put unvaccinated employees in danger. While many vaccine passports are under development, there's no easy way for businesses to determine who is fully vaccinated. Allowing anyone to enter an establishment without wearing a mask and without temperature checks, vaccine checks, or any other kind of health screening sends a message to employees that they're responsible for their own health and safety, and leaves people without the jab vulnerable. This is especially true for businesses that haven't provided incentives or time off for people to get a vaccine. Additionally, not everyone is willing or able to get inoculated, such as those who are medically exempt or have sincerely held religious beliefs.

It potentially puts frontline workers in greater danger, say employee advocates. The latest "CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks," Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, a labor union representing workers in industries including retail, meatpacking, food processing, and manufacturing, said in a statement last week Thursday, the day the CDC changed its masking guidance for vaccinated individuals. "Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local Covid safety measures."

We still have a long way to go.

Some public health experts expressed concerns that the CDC's change in guidance, while based on evolving science, has come too soon, and may put many people at risk. The nation's largest union of registered nurses condemned the CDC for the change, saying it would jeopardize the health of frontline workers and the general public and would disproportionately harm people of color.

About 123 million people, or 37 percent of the total U.S. population, are fully vaccinated. That means about one in three people walking into a business is fully vaccinated. In some places that number is much smaller. In Mississippi, for example, only 26 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, in Alabama it's 27 percent, and in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona it's closer to 29 percent. In other words, we still have a long way to go until we're officially safe from another super spreader event and can return to normal without hesitancy.

"The pandemic isn't over but, alas, that is the take-away message of the CDC's announcement," said Peter Pitts, president and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a patient advocacy group,  told The Journal News. "It is a communications mistake with significant dangerous unintended consequences."