Can businesses require masks? -- Michigan health director answers questions about eased mandate

Michigan eased its mask mandate Friday.

Under the new mandate, people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks indoors, and people who are not vaccinated do not need to wear them outside. The change comes after new guidance issued Thursday by the CDC.

MORE: Michigan lifts mask mandate for people fully vaccinated

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said this is a result of learning more about the virus and having an effective vaccine.

"We learn more about this virus every day; we learn more about the vaccines and how well they work, and so it’s really exciting to be able to take this step forward because we know that we have this effective vaccine available and that people are getting vaccinated and that they can utilize that tool instead of masking and social distancing," Hertel said. "I think we’re really excited at the department to be able to take this next step."

Hertel sat down with FOX 2 to answer questions about the state's new masking requirements. 

How does this change affect the Vacc to Normal plan?

"We haven’t made any decisions on that. We’re still working toward that 70% getting vaccinated, and we’ll continue to work toward that goal until we hit it in the state of Michigan. Things always can change as we learn more, and the virus itself changes. Our case rates are decreasing significantly, the weather is getting a lot nicer, so it would be great if we were able to continue to make progress here in loosening our restrictions.

"At this point, it (Vacc to Normal) is not affected by any mask rules, but we continue to learn more, make changes as we have over the last year. We continue to review vaccination rates, as well as caseloads and hospitalizations. And we’ll make adjustments as needed, but we’re working very much toward that 70% goal for vaccinations in the state, and I’m really looking forward to getting to that point."

Vacc to Normal sets the vaccination benchmarks Michigan must reach in order for virus restrictions to be lifted.

Before the CDC issued the new guidance, Michigan's plan was to lift the mask order once 70% of all adults had received at least one dose of the vaccine under the Vacc to Normal Challenge. Currently, just over 55% have received one dose.

Can businesses make their own decisions about mandating masks?

"Yes, absolutely. If a store or a business feels more comfortable asking everyone to wear a mask indoors, then they certainly are able to do that… This order does not prevent that, and that’s OK."

Related: Meijer to require masks for all shoppers unless medically necessary

According to the CDC, masks must be worn "where required federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."

Do you recommend carrying around the vaccine card?

"I wouldn’t make that recommendation, though I carry around my vaccine card just because I really like having it, so I guess it’s up to the individual."

While the new mandate says people who are unvaccinated need to wear masks, doing so is essentially on the honor system when patronizing establishments that do not choose to enforce a mandate for all people.

Do you think the new mask rules will be an incentive or a deterrent for people who are unvaccinated still?

"I hope it’s an incentive. I’ve been vaccinated, I’m fully vaccinated. I have a number of friends and colleagues who are, and just the sense of relief and security after getting that vaccine and waiting that two weeks is, you know, it’s a great feeling, and I’d really love if everyone could feel that way. And so I would encourage people if they have not gotten vaccinated yet to please go out and get one."

What do you ask of Michigan residents as we navigate through these new rules?

"I hope everybody is treating each other the way they hope to be treated, and I think we’re asking people to follow the guidance -- if you’re vaccinated, you don’t need the mask. If you’re not vaccinated yet, we’d like you to continue to mask to keep yourself and others safe. And I think that we’re going to rely on the people of Michigan to do just that."

Do you think people are going to follow the rules?

"Yeah, I do think people are going to follow the rules. They’ve done it for a year now, and people know what it is they need to do to keep themselves and others safe and reduce their risk and I think that they’ll continue to do that into the future because we know coronavirus isn’t going away. It’s something that will be here with us for a while, not as widespread, hopefully we’ll get out of the pandemic, but we’ll continue to fight this virus going into the future."

Is there anywhere in particular indoors that you are encouraging people still to wear masks if you are vaccinated?  

"Not at this point, but we will be taking a look at our capacity and gathering restrictions over the next few days, and if we’re able to loosen those up a little bit, then yeah I think that we’ll take a look at that if we have really, really large crowds. But again, the vaccine is effective, it is working, and we’ve seen that both anecdotally in the state of Michigan and in the research that’s being done."

The CDC's guidance recommended that masks should be worn in crowded indoor places, such as buses, planes, hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters.

Some people have been hesitant to get vaccinated. Are we seeing the number of people getting vaccinated ramp up or are we still plateauing?

"I think we’re still kind of plateauing. We might see a small increase now that individuals age 12-15 are now able to get vaccinated. I think vaccine hesitancy is a really broad term. I think for many people, the ability to get to a place to get a vaccine could be a barrier, even if they want a vaccine, and so what we’re working on at the state-level now is bringing the vaccines to people so that it is convenient for them to get vaccinated and they can get around any of those barriers they may have, like transportation. Also being able to have those conversations with their health departments or health providers to answer questions, making sure that they feel confident getting the vaccine."