Workers worry about safety, stress as states ease mask rules

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Leo Carney, kitchen manager at McElroy's Harbor House in Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said the removal of coronavirus restrictions will disproportionately impact Black residents many of whom are essential workers, Friday, March 5, 2021. Carney said he would feel better with restrictions being removed if essential workers had access to the coronavirus vaccine. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. – Leo Carney worries that bigger crowds and mask-less diners could endanger workers at the Biloxi, Mississippi, seafood restaurant where he manages the kitchen. Maribel Cornejo, who earns $9.85 an hour as a McDonald's cook in Houston, can't afford to get sick and frets co-workers will become more lax about wearing masks, even though the fast food company requires them.

As more jurisdictions join Texas, Mississippi and other states in lifting mask mandates and easing restrictions on businesses, many essential workers — including bartenders, restaurant servers and retail workers — are relieved by changes that might help the economy but also concerned they could make them less safe amid a pandemic that health experts warn is far from over.

Many business owners on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were glad Gov. Tate Reeves decided to eliminate mask requirements, limits on seating in restaurants and most other binding restrictions. “But the workers themselves... especially ones that have pre-existing conditions, they’re scared right now,” Carney said.

“This just puts us back in a situation where we’re on the frontlines, under the gun again,” said Carney, who sees Black Mississippians facing the greatest risks from the decision that took effect Wednesday. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Latino people in the United States, and many Gulf Coast restaurants have a significant number of Black employees.

Public health experts tracking the trajectory of more contagious virus variants have warned that lifting restrictions too soon could lead to another lethal wave of infections. Although vaccination drives are accelerating as drug manufacturers ramp up production, many essential workers are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in Mississippi and other states.

Alabama’s state health officer on Friday advised residents to keep following standard infection-prevention recommendations even though the governor is letting the state’s mask mandate expire next month.

“There is nothing magical about the date of April 9. We don’t want the public to think that’s the day we all stop taking precautions,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said.

The governors of Iowa, Montana, North Dakota also have ended mask requirements or plan to suspend them soon. The governor of South Carolina on Friday lifted an executive order requiring face coverings in government office buildings and restaurants, leaving it up to state administrators and restaurant operators to develop their own guidelines.