The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been making a lot of guideline changes lately, namely those surrounding masks. Just two weeks ago, on May 13, the agency suggested that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most circumstances. The move promoted governors from coast to coast to lift mask mandates, many of which officially go into effect Memorial Day weekend, kicking off a summer of reduced restrictions. But at that time, the CDC was also standing by another controversial mask guideline for unvaccinated people—now, on May 28, the agency quietly walked back on that guidance just as the holiday weekend began.
The CDC's guidelines for camps have been hotly debated since they were released at the end of April. The agency's initial 14-page document outlining COVID guidelines for summer camps recommended that campers and counselors socially distance and wear masks during most activities, even while outside. "All people in camp facilities should wear masks at all times, with exceptions for certain people, or for certain settings or activities, such as while eating and drinking or swimming," the original document stated.
The guidelines were met with backlash from many who pointed out that children are both less susceptible to catching COVID and that most camp activities take place outdoors, where the risk of transmission is notably low. During a May 5 appearance on Today, even Anthony Fauci, MD, chief White House COVID adviser, noted that the CDC guidance for camps was "a bit strict, a bit stringent."
That same day, CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, announced that the agency had updated its summer camp COVID guidance, allowing fully vaccinated staff and campers 12 and up to go mask-free outdoors. Then, on May 28, the CDC loosened those restrictions yet again for both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated campers and staffers. "For camps where everyone is fully vaccinated prior to the start of camp, it is safe to return to full capacity, without masking and without physical distancing," the new guidelines explain.
The CDC also now says that unvaccinated campers and camp staff can mostly be without masks outdoors. "In general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors," the agency said. "However, particularly in areas of substantial to high transmission, people who are not fully vaccinated are encouraged to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people who are not fully vaccinated."
For camps with unvaccinated staff or campers, the CDC still says physical distancing, maintaining pods, encouraging hand washing, and avoiding crowding and poor ventilation indoors is key.
Tom Rosenberg, president and chief executive of the American Camp Association, told The New York Times that while the new guidance comes in the nick of time (with many camps kicking off their seasons next week), he also pointed out that it's still not possible for most campers to be vaccinated. The Food&Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved the COVID vaccine for children 12 and up at the moment and the Pfizer vaccine is the sole one authorized for those 12 to 15 years old.
"The reality is that the majority of camps are for kids six years old to 17, so a good portion of the kids attending camp, by virtue of their age alone, will not be vaccinated," Rosenberg told The Times. "So camps are preparing to manage another COVID summer with a layered mitigation strategy, like last year."