AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Two years ago this month, Detroit's big three shuttered their plants indefinitely as COVID-19 cases began to trickle then pour into auto factories as the pandemic widened in Michigan and the U.S.
Today marks a big step for the United Auto Workers Union and its employees at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis: masks will no longer be required for workers as long as the facilities they travel to aren't in high risk areas.
The decision to scale back masking regardless of vaccination was made after the UAW's task force reviewed reports from medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Many workers admitted it felt a little weird to see a mask optional policy.
"Kind of mixed feelings," said Sierra Pearson, who got off during a shift change Friday morning. "It's kind of good since we'll be free again, but kind of bad because everybody not going to get their vaccination which is their choice, but everybody's gonna want to throw their mask off."
Pearson said she'd be keeping hers on "until Corona leaves Planet Earth."
Last week, the CDC released new guidance for companies and local governments as the pandemic pendulum swings toward fewer cases and eases off the health care infrastructure that saw its worst surge earlier this winter.
The new recommendations from the CDC cover about 70% of the country's population, which are now in medium or low risk areas. Individuals in low or medium risk areas can stop wearing masks. However, students in schools and employees at work in places where the risk is still high, masks are still strongly recommended.
That goes for people at UAW plants as well.
"While masks are now optional at sites not in high-risk counties, they will still be available for those who choose to wear one based on personal preference," read a release from the UAW. "In addition, the CDC recommends that those who are immunocompromised or high risk for severe disease wear a mask or respirator that provides greater protection. People with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 also should wear a mask and not report to work."
GM released the following statement:
"Effective today, GM facilities located in counties with a CDC designation of low or medium risk may move to optional masking and physical distancing, regardless of vaccination status, unless prohibited by state or local requirements. GM will provide masks for employees and guests who choose to continue to wear them.
"GM will continue to adhere to mask mandates at facilities in counties designated by the CDC as high risk. The CDC will update its guidance weekly, and GM will monitor and adjust its safety protocols as appropriate."