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WASHINGTON — Face masks no longer have to be worn by fully vaccinated people in most outdoor settings, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, updating its previous guidance to reflect a new understanding of how the coronavirus spreads, as well as the increasing vaccination rates nationwide.
“Today is another day we can take a step back to the normalcy of before,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in introducing the new advice on when people should wear masks. That guidance says vaccinated people don’t need masks while eating outdoors at restaurants, gathering in small groups or conducting outdoor activities like hiking.
Unvaccinated people don’t need to wear masks when exercising or gathering in small groups of fully vaccinated people, but they are advised to keep wearing masks outdoors when eating at a restaurant or gathering with other unvaccinated people.
A fully vaccinated person should also still wear a mask when attending a “crowded, outdoor event, like a live performance, parade, or sports event,” according to the new guidance. The guidance also says fully vaccinated people can safely visit indoor venues like museums, movie theaters or malls, ride public transportation, return to houses of worship and frequent high-intensity exercise classes at gyms — provided they're masked when they do so.
“Generally, for vaccinated people, outdoor activities without a mask are safe,” Walensky said. But she warned against gathering in larger venues like outdoor concert halls where there is “decreased ability to maintain physical distance and where many unvaccinated people may also be present.”
Walensky added that the CDC would “continue to recommend this until widespread vaccination is achieved.”
The new, more relaxed masking rules are seemingly intended as an enticement to the millions of Americans who are eligible to receive a vaccine but for one reason or another have not yet been inoculated. About 95 million people in the United States have been vaccinated, but that is a far too low share of the population to keep the coronavirus from readily spreading. The nation is still reporting around 50,000 new coronavirus cases each day.
Public health officials worry that demand for the vaccine is dropping and are holding out vaccination as the route to returning to a pre-pandemic normal. “If you are fully vaccinated, things are much safer for you than those who are not yet fully vaccinated,” Walensky said, speaking at a Tuesday briefing of the White House pandemic response team during which the new guidance was introduced.
Twenty-six states have mask mandates that apply to both indoor and outdoor settings.
When the coronavirus first appeared in late 2019, there was little understanding of how the new pathogen spread. An early, now infamous tweet from the World Health Organization decreed that the coronavirus was not airborne, and there was widespread concern about the virus spreading on surfaces such as doorknobs.
Scientists now understand — with a year of experience and research behind them — that the virus is an almost entirely airborne disease, and that it thrives in unventilated spaces where maskless people congregate in close quarters. Last month, the CDC called for an end to the kind of “hygiene theater” that saw Clorox wipes become a scarce commodity last spring.
Evidence has been growing that the virus is simply not concentrated enough in most outdoor settings to transmit from one person to another. The coronavirus “just cannot accumulate in the air outdoors,” Dr. Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech, one of the nation’s leading aerosol scientists, told NPR ahead of Tuesday’s announcement. “It’s like putting a drop of dye into the ocean.” An Irish study found that outdoor transmission accounted for 0.1 percent of coronavirus cases in that country.
Israel, the most vaccinated country in the world, dropped its outdoor mask mandate last week. Some had hoped that the new CDC guidance would move more decisively in that direction, even though vaccination rates in the U.S. are much lower than they are in Israel.
Dr. Nicole Saphier, a physician at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a Fox News medical contributor, said the new guidance “still doesn’t go far enough,” given how unlikely a person is to catch the coronavirus outside.
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