CDC relaxes outdoor mask guidance for fully vaccinated people. Here's what you need to know.

After a year of recommending that Americans wear masks anytime they’re around someone who is not in their household, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tweaked its guidelines around mask wearing on Tuesday.

Under the new guidelines, both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people can go maskless if they walk, run, hike or bike by themselves or with people from their household. Both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people can also stop wearing a mask if they attend small outdoor gatherings.

The news comes as several states and cities announced that they will be easing their mask restrictions and guidance. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker shared on Monday that the state will relax its outdoor face coverings order in some circumstances, with face coverings being required only when it’s not possible to socially distance. However, masks will be required at all times indoors.

A person wearing a face mask as a precaution against COVID-19 walks between beds of tulips at Dilworth Park in Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Under new CDC guidelines, both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people can go maskless if they walk, run, hike or bike by themselves or with people from their household. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Nashville health officials announced that they will be lifting business restrictions starting May 14. However, the city plans to continue to recommend the use of masks indoors and outdoors.

The CDC has slowly relaxed its mask guidance over time, most recently saying that masks “may not be necessary” when you’re outside by yourself and away from others, or with people who live with you. However, the CDC has maintained that masks should be worn anytime you’re traveling on a plane, bus, train or other forms of public transportation traveling into, within or out of the United States and in transportation hubs like airports and train stations.

There were hints that this new guidance was coming. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said on This Week With George Stephanopoulos that updated guidelines from the CDC would be coming “soon.”

“The CDC is a science-based organization. They don’t want to make any guidelines unless they look at the data and the data backs it up,’ Fauci said. “But when you look around at the common sense situation, the risk is really low, especially if you’re vaccinated.”

Given that we’ve been living under a similar mask mandate for a year, it’s understandable to have questions. Here’s what you need to know.

What are the new mask recommendations?

The new mask guidelines state that people who are fully vaccinated can stop wearing masks in these situations:

  • Walking, running, hiking or biking outdoors alone or with members of their household

  • Attending small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated family and friends

  • Attending small outdoor gatherings with a mix of fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people

  • Dining at outdoor restaurants with friends from multiple households

The CDC also says in an infographic of the guidelines that people who are fully vaccinated can attend a “crowded outdoor event” like a live performance, parade or sports event as long as they keep a mask on.

(Graphic courtesy of the CDC)
(Graphic courtesy of the CDC)

What is new about the mask guidance?

The guidance offers separate masking recommendations for people who are fully vaccinated and those who haven’t yet received a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s a change from past recommendations, which had the same recommendations for people when it came to wearing masks outdoors and in public.

Should I still wear a mask indoors?

Yes, the CDC still recommends wearing a mask indoors. “No vaccine is 100 percent effective, including the ones for COVID-19,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “Being indoors is riskier than outdoors because the main way the coronavirus spreads is through the air.” For that reason, he says, “people still need to be cautious.”

Who does the new mask guidance impact?

The CDC still recommends that people ages 2 and up wear masks in public settings and when they’re around people who don’t live in their household. Anyone in that age group is impacted.

What do doctors think about the new mask guidance?

They’re onboard with it, but some say the guidance could have gone even further. “They are overly cautious and taking a baby step,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “The data supports more aggressive relaxation of outdoor masking for both vaccinated and unvaccinated.”

He adds, “Studies have shown that people are not getting infected outdoors, irrespective of vaccination status.”

A systematic review published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that less than 10 percent of global COVID-19 infections happen outdoors. Another study found that the risk of getting infected outdoors is low, but higher on warm days and when the wind speed is less than 5.5 miles per hour.

But Watkins says he’s “a little relieved” that the guidelines are still “conservative.”

“I worry about people going maskless outside in crowds,” he says.

Watkins says it’s “reasonable” to change the practices that were in place now that nearly half of the American population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. Having two different sets of guidelines for those who are vaccinated and those who are not is “a rational approach,” he adds.

"I think it is a cautious step forward that will be welcomed by many. It is a little complicated and people will have to get used to it," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "There are circumstances even outdoors where vaccinated people are recommended to wear a mask. There will be confusion about that. I urge a little common sense for vaccinated people. If you're in a large group, wear a mask. If you're in a medium-sized group and everyone is vaccinated, enjoy."

Schaffner says it’s “very important” to give people who have been vaccinated “some reward.” Under the old guidance, “it was very frustrating for a lot of people to be vaccinated and to have to continue to behave in the same way as they did before they were vaccinated,” he says.

Overall, Adalja says it’s time for a change in masking guidelines. “We could have done this earlier,” he says.

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