The CDC Just Announced New, Kind Of Confusing Face Mask Rules — Here’s What It All Means

Molly Longman
·3 min read

On April 27, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced some news that will surely cause some to breathe (an unmasked) sigh of relief. Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer have to wear masks at small outdoor gatherings, the health agency said. Folks who aren’t fully vaccinated can go without face coverings in some situations as well, the CDC noted.

The federal health agency didn’t, however, say that vaccinated people can shed their masks altogether just because they’re outdoors. In crowds or large-to-medium-sized gatherings with strangers, for example, everyone needs to keep their mask up.

This is a major shift, as for most of the past year, the CDC has been asking Americans to wear masks outside, especially where social distancing is difficult.

This news comes as more than half of American adults have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. President Joe Biden and other federal health officials indicated the success of the national vaccination campaign had to do with the changes in mask guidance, The New York Times reports. The more people are vaccinated, the more lives can return to a new, more optimistic normal, they noted.

“It’s the return of freedom,” Mike Saag, MD, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told The Associated Press. “It’s the return of us being able to do normal activities again. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the exit ramp. And that’s a beautiful thing.” Although we’re not yet out of this pandemic — and variants and high levels of COVID-19 cases in some areas of the country are still worrying to health experts — Saag said that this guidance was reasonable and can serve as a kind of carrot-on-a-stick-reward for more people to be vaccinated.

With the new guidelines, all people — whether they’re fully vaccinated or not — won’t have to wear masks outside if they’re walking, biking, or running alone or with members of their household. This may be in line with what many Americans have been doing already, but having the official go-ahead is still a relief. I, for one, am psyched to not have to pull my mask up and down on my runs in Central Park (unless I run through a crowd for some reason).

Everyone can also shed their mask during small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people. So if you’re the only unvaccinated person at a small get-together of fully vaccinated friends, you can keep your mask off.

Unvaccinated people (a group that includes anyone who isn’t two-weeks out from their final vaccine shot) do need to wear masks at outdoor gatherings where other unvaccinated people are present. They should also keep masking up when outdoor dining at a restaurant with people from outside your household. However, the fully vaccinated can do these things with a bare face. Ah, freedom.

The caveats: Whether you’re vaccinated or not, you should wear a mask to concerts and outdoor spotting events, or anywhere with crowds. And this doesn’t exempt you from following previous guidelines for masking inside. Keep your mask on in public indoor spaces or when indoors with unvaccinated or high-risk people, and avoid crowded indoor spaces entirely. The CDC points out that we’re still learning how well the vaccines keep people from spreading disease (though the early research looks promising) and how long they’ll protect people, so showing a little caution is still essential. But, when it’s appropriate, enjoy the fresh air.

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