The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its guidelines on Tuesday on the stipulation for people to wear masks while outdoors — enabling fully-vaccinated people in the U.S. to venture outdoors without donning a mask, according to an initial AP News report.
In addition, those who are still unvaccinated may also go outside without wearing masks — although this is conditional, it marks the beginning of the end for precautionary COVID-19 mandates that people in the U.S. have been living with for more than a year.
Fewer masks, and a 'return to freedom'?
This latest guidance comes as a carefully calibrated step on the path back to normal living since the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and subsequently killed more than 570,000 people. For most of 2020 and 2021, the CDC has encouraged people in the U.S. to wear masks outdoors if they're closer than 6 ft (2 m) to other people.
However, with most U.S. adults having received at least their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine — more than a third to be precise — the necessity for mask-wearing outside is beginning to wane.
"It's the return of freedom," said Mike Saag, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who was understandably ebullient about the change. "It's the return of us being able to do normal activities again." While it's still too soon to jump completely back to normal, "we're on the exit ramp," he added. "And that's a beautiful thing."
Of course, not everyone is fully vaccinated, with concerns still mounting about variants and additional developments surrounding the global pandemic. But Saag regards the new guidance as a meaningful reward after the development and rapid rollout of effective vaccines — with roughly 140 million people in the U.S. stepping up and getting a shot. The CDC's guidance has remained guidance throughout the coronavirus crisis, but it's important to note that many people in the U.S. have already been ditching the masks for the last several weeks.
Most crucially, the CDC says it's okay for people to go outdoors without a mask when they walk, bike, or run alone or with members of their household. This new freedom also applies to small outdoor gatherings with other, fully-vaccinated people. But beyond this, the CDC's guidance differs for people who have and haven't received a full COVID-19 vaccine.
The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis isn't finished with us
The CDC defines unvaccinated people as those who've yet to receive the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or both injections of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. Those who haven't received any should still wear masks at outdoor gatherings that include other, unvaccinated people, according to the CDC release. They should also continue wearing masks while dining at outdoor restaurants.
People who've received a full vaccine, on the other hand, don't need a mask in these scenarios.
For crowded outdoor situations like sporting events and concerts, the mask-wearing mandates stand, said the CDC — which also still recommends masks while indoors at public spaces like restaurants, hair salons, museums, shopping centers, and movie theaters. A physician and scientist at the University of California named Babak Javid, said the latest CDC guidance is sensible. "In the vast majority of outdoor scenarios, transmission risk is low," he said. Javid has supported outdoor mask-wearing mandates because he thinks they increase the likelihood of people wearing masks inside. But he emphasized his grasp that generally, Americans are intelligent enough to grasp the risks and develop good decision-making processes. "The key thing is to make sure people wear masks indoors" while in public spaces," he said. "I'm looking forward to mask-free existence."
"The timing is right because we now have a fair amount of data about the scenarios where transmission occurs," said Professor and Vice-Chair of Preventative Medicine Mercedes Carnethon of the Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, in the AP News report. She also suggested: "the additional freedoms may serve as a motivator" for unvaccinated people to make an appointment for their shot(s).
For almost everybody, the COVID-19 crisis has created world-historical levels of stress — from mass layoffs, evictions, the frightening reality of mental health issues compounded by the looming threat of homelessness, this pandemic has altered the fabric of society — probably forever. While it's tempting to act like we've never heard of COVID-19, the threat from variants, and the likely necessity for booster shots means this crisis is far from finished with us. But a little celebration is definitely in order.
This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.