The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a guidance update late July that vaccinated people may be able to spread COVID-19 and should resume wearing masks in public indoor settings in areas with high transmission levels, a reversal of May's guidance that said they didn't need to mask up. The unvaccinated are still urged to wear masks in public.
The guidance also called for universal masking in schools -- a contentious issue that has triggered a slew of lawsuits.
Masking has long been a divisive issue, despite science indicating that face coverings are "critical" in the battle against transmitting the disease, according to the CDC. At the same time, misinformation about face coverings has proliferated and changing guidance has added to the confusion.
Currently, at least four states and Puerto Rico have indoor mask mandates for the vaccinated and unvaccinated: Oregon, Nevada, Hawaii, Louisiana.
Most states have not issued new mandates -- focusing on vaccination instead -- but a number, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington, have recommended constituents follow the CDC's guidance. Each state's guidelines vary slightly.
On the other hand, the idea of masking up once again, has been met with resistance in some places.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, said the CDC guidance on masks "will unfortunately only diminish confidence in the vaccine and create more challenges for public health officials." Other officials have argued against mask mandates, citing arguments like parental freedom.
Worry over delta variant
Concern is mounting over the surge of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations among children, now at their most dire level yet in the entire pandemic.
Nearly 94,000 new child COVID-19 cases were reported last week, with the worst numbers in Louisiana and Florida, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children's Hospital Association (CHA) reported.
Nationwide, COVID-19 has surged at an alarming rate in recent weeks. The daily COVID-19 case average in the U.S. has surged to more than 113,000, up by 24.3% in the last week, according to the latest federal data. Hospitalizations have also soared, hitting its highest point in six months with more than 75,000 patients currently hospitalized across the country with COVID-19.
So far, 59% of the US population over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. There is still no vaccine authorized for kids under the age of 12.
A number of states -- Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Virginia and Washington state -- have also called for masking in schools.
But efforts to ban masks in schools in several states, such as Florida, Texas, South Carolina and Arkansas, have sparked bitter backlash and legal battles.
Kentucky and Arkansas
In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, signed an executive order Tuesday requiring masks for all schools, a move immediately slammed by state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican.
Cameron filed a response to the mask mandate in schools on Wednesday with the Kentucky Supreme Court, arguing the governor's order goes against laws passed in the General Assembly this year. He accused the governor of engaging "in an unlawful exercise of power by issuing his executive order," in a statement.
Earlier this year lawmakers passed bills to restrict the governor's power to mandate health restrictions like masks. He vetoed the legislation, but was overturned, and Beshear filed a lawsuit. Now the case is pending a Supreme Court decision, which has yet to hand down a ruling.
In a press conference Tuesday, Beshear cited grim COVID-19 numbers as the reason for the mandate, as the state reported 2,500 new COVID-19 cases, with 490 among individuals 18-years-old and younger, that day.
"We cannot keep our kids in school if we're unwilling to put on a mask," Beshear said. "It's everywhere, and we all need to act like we're in that red zone."
In Arkansas, the state's Department of Education recommended students wear masks in schools on Tuesday, in line with the CDC guidance, but didn't mandate it.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said earlier this month that he regrets signing an April law banning mask mandates as virus infections surged among unvaccinated youth.
He called on lawmakers to consider rolling back the ban for schools but faced fierce opposition among his GOP peers. Last week, a judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing that law, saying it violates the state's constitution, and several schools have since announced mask requirements, local ABC affiliate KATV reported.
Hutchinson said he supports the judge's decision.
"It is conservative, reasonable and compassionate to allow local school districts to protect those students who are under 12 and not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine," he said on masking in schools last week.
Meanwhile in Texas, at least two districts, Austin ISD and Dallas ISD, have defied Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's May executive order banning mask mandates.
The Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, filed a lawsuit Sunday night in Travis County against the ban, seeking to give power to local districts to decide for themselves. No response has been filed in that case yet.
The ban has faced litigation from city and county officials in Dallas and Bexar counties. The Harris County Attorney also announced Tuesday plans to take legal action against Abbott's ban on mask mandates, though but documents have not yet been filed.
"First responders and school leaders are speaking out and standing up as delta ravages our community. We have their back," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement Tuesday. "Protecting the community during an emergency is a duty, not an option for government leaders."
On Tuesday two separate state district judges granted local authorities in those counties temporary power to issue mask mandates on Tuesday, the Texas Tribune reported. Both decisions are temporary and pending hearings later this month.
The following day the governor and state Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a petition to halt the judge's order in Dallas County. "Any school district, public university, or local government official that decides to defy GA-38—which prohibits gov't entities from mandating masks—will be taken to court," Abbott said in a statement.
"Removing government mandates, however, does not end personal responsibility or the importance of caring for family members, friends, and your community," Abbott said in response to the lawsuits to CBS affiliate KHOU-11. "Vaccines are the most effective defense against contracting COVID and becoming seriously ill, and we continue to urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine."
Florida is facing least three lawsuits against its ban on school mask mandates: one filed by a parent in Broward County, another by parents in several counties including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach and a third in Orange and Volusia counties.
In late July, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order directing the state's health and education departments to bar the use of face coverings in school. DeSantis said that move was meant to "protect parents' freedom to choose whether their children wear masks."
DeSantis said in a press conference last month Florida students shouldn't be "muzzled" during the school year, adding, "We need them to be able to breathe."
Despite the order, several school districts have announce masks will be mandatory for the 2021-22 school year.
Despite public outcry, many governors are doubling down in their refusal to reimpose masks.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said on the heels of the CDC guidance release, "State law now prohibits school administrators from requiring students to wear a mask…Shutting our state down, closing schools and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is."
State positions on masking are still changing. A number of states never created a mask mandate in the pandemic, including Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Idaho.