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The Delta Variant Forces U.S. Automakers To Revisit Mask Mandates

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It feels like just yesterday that workers across America were able to take their masks off at work. But the extremely contagious delta variant is spreading rapidly. And now auto plants are among the businesses reinstating face mask mandates.

NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler's parent company, Stellantis, made masks optional for vaccinated workers a few weeks ago. Now they say it's time to mask back up.

Justin Mayhugh works at GM's Fairfax assembly plant. It's been shut down because of the semiconductor shortage. So he's excited to go back to work at all. And he's happy to wear a mask.

JUSTIN MAYHUGH: If I can help protect somebody, you know, then I'll do it.

DOMONOSKE: But he says some of his co-workers feel differently, calling COVID a hoax or saying masks violate their personal freedom.

MAYHUGH: Everything is political. And you can't, like, even bring up COVID without basically getting get into an argument with somebody.

DOMONOSKE: The split in worker feelings about masks, it's an issue for employers weighing mandates.

NATALIE FLUKER: I think a lot of it comes down to, you know, employee morale.

DOMONOSKE: Natalie Fluker is a lawyer at von Briesen & Roper. She says, employers are also worrying about what's legal. Like, lots of companies are offering vaccines and incentivizing vaccines, but can they require vaccines?

The Department of Justice says vaccine mandates are OK. But it's not common right now.

FLUKER: There are a lot of people who are still waffling, you know? This makes them nervous because everything is changing all the time.

DOMONOSKE: But not everyone's waffling. Tyson Foods says workers at its meatpacking plants need vaccines.

I asked Mayhugh how he'd feel if GM did the same. He's vaccinated. He thinks everyone should be vaccinated. But a company requiring it...

MAYHUGH: I mean, it does make me uncomfortable, the idea of like, you are being forced to do this. Yeah, (laughter), I don't know.

DOMONOSKE: The automakers and the autoworkers union say they strongly encourage vaccination.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ CAM QUARTET'S "HERBIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.