Detroit Three autoworkers to mask up again starting Wednesday

Kalea Hall Alex Harring
The Detroit News

Detroit — Autoworkers and staff at Detroit Three plants in the United States must wear masks again beginning Wednesday, becoming the latest high-profile businesses to restore COVID-19 restrictions as the nation grapples with the growing threat of the delta variant.

Representatives from the union, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV on their COVID-19 Joint Task Force reinstituted the mask mandate at the automakers' facilities regardless of vaccination status. The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended that vaccinated individuals wear masks at indoor public places where there is significant spread. 

The controversial CDC policy reversal comes less than a month after the task force allowed vaccinated employees to unmask for the first time since they returned to the plants, offices and other facilities following a weeks-long spring 2020 pandemic shutdown. 

"While we know that masks can be uncomfortable, the spread of the delta variant and recent data outlining the alarmingly high rate of transmission among those unvaccinated is a serious health threat," the task force said in a joint statement. "The more our members, coworkers and their families are vaccinated, the quicker we can vanquish this deadly pandemic." 

Matt Horner, an autoworker at GM’s Fort Wayne, Indiana, truck plant said he feels "as a respectful UAW member, it is each of our responsibility to look after one another. This includes responsible mask-wearing."

"I have done my part by being vaccinated, and I’m aware of the severity and the current statistics of the virus," he said. "That said, I fully support GM and UAW with the decision of returning to fully masked. Obviously, herd vaccination remains to be an issue."

Detroit's automakers and their largest union are joining some of America's biggest companies in reverting to mandatory masking as COVID-19 cases rise — especially in states with lower vaccination rates. Target, Walmart and Sam's Club have all said employees would begin wearing masks regardless of vaccination status. And Kroger Co. says it "strongly encourages all individuals" to wear masks at its facilities.

Wayne State University also announced masking Tuesday through at least mid-September, joining the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. All three schools will require vaccines for students.

"The automakers, in addition to the other businesses that are following suit, are making a combination of prudent business decisions, as well as public health decisions," said Wayne McCullough, director of the master's of public health program at Michigan State University. 

While each business will have to make its own decision on whether to reinstate masking, McCullough said, "at the end of the day, perhaps one of the worst business decisions that can be made is to allow an infection of their employees, which then leads to a loss of revenue and work." 

Mandatory masking and the push for vaccination are becoming more mainstream as the more contagious delta variant props up transmission rates and causes "breakthrough cases," which is when a vaccinated person contracts the virus. 

"I do think we'll see more and more individual businesses making these decisions," said Joshua Petrie, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan School of Public Health, adding policies aimed at stifling transmission should be kept in place until the virus spread has decreased.

Nearly half of Michigan residents live in counties where the CDC recommends masking in crowded or indoor spaces. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, however, has said she doesn't plan to reinstitute a mask mandate, but the state is continuing to push for residents to get vaccinated.

As of Tuesday, 63.8% of Michigan residents 16 and older had received at least one dose of a vaccine. Health experts say the vaccines are effective against severe illness caused by COVID-19, but vaccinated individuals can still get the virus and transmit it to other people. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said in an interview Tuesday she finds the current virus situation in Michigan and across the U.S. "concerning" and agrees with the CDC's new masking guidance. Michigan is "not quite where other states as far as the sheer number of cases, but we're certainly going in the wrong direction."

"We know that masks work. We know that vaccines are very effective, especially against preventing severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths," she said. "I support public health measures that are implemented by businesses to try to protect people's health, but also making sure businesses are still able to do the important work that they do." 

Business groups would prefer to leave the mandating to business decision-makers: "One-size-fits-all government mandates fail to recognize real and important differences from one type of business to another," said Richard Studley, CEO of the Michigan Chamber,  in a statement to The Detroit News. "So we believe individual employers need reasonable discretion and some flexibility on how to best protect their employees and customers."

In Wayne County, where each of the automakers have operations, health officials plan to release new public health guidance soon. But a mask mandate is not currently under consideration, said Melita Jordan, Wayne County's director of health, human and veterans services.

"We're not at the point of mandating a mask at all, but we are looking at the data so that will guide us in the decision that we're trying to make," she said. "It's extremely important that we alert the public as we see the cases rise, so that people can, again, make sure that they are protecting themselves, their families and those that they come in contact with."

In July, the auto industry task force allowed workers to remove their masks. But workers at some plants in states with higher COVID-19 case rates, such as Missouri, Florida and Kentucky, had to mask up shortly after the change because of regional COVID hotspots. 

"We have all been continuing to monitor the data trends, looking at our internal data, community data in the U.S. and certainly global data,"  said Dr. Francesca Litow, Ford's corporate medical director. "Specifically here in the U.S., (the masking decision) was based on that data, as well as the CDC's recent guidance that said that when you have these increasing trends, it's time to do something."

The Detroit Three automakers do not require employees to be vaccinated, though it is strongly encouraged. But some businesses, including meat processor Tyson Foods, are, as public health experts continue to push vaccines as the best tools to prevent spread.

"Masks being reinstated are one of our last-ditch efforts to stop transmission," Michigan's Petrie said. "But really our first priority now should be continuing to get people vaccinated because it's the most effective thing we can do to protect ourselves and then people out there in the community."

Twitter: @bykaleahall

Twitter: @alex_harring