The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is relaxing its guidelines around wearing masks during the pandemic. On Tuesday, it announced that people in the U.S. fully vaccinated against covid-19 should feel safe and free to not wear masks outdoors, unless they’re in crowded settings. The guidelines also note that unvaccinated people don’t need to wear masks while walking or exercising by themselves or with household members. The revisions come in the midst of recent debates over the value of mask-wearing outside by public health experts and others.
The CDC has been steadily updating its recommendations for fully vaccinated people (defined as two or more weeks after the final dose of your vaccine schedule) as the rollout has continued. Last month, it advised that fully vaccinated people were safe to socialise indoors unmasked with other vaccinated people or with members of a single unvaccinated household.
Some public health experts and journalists have argued that outdoor masking should be seen as largely unnecessary, given the current evidence. On a practical note, that would mean striking down outdoor mask mandates, which are still enforced by a few states. The basic argument is that outdoor transmission of covid-19 is very rare, especially outside of crowded environments where people are interacting for long periods of time. And while the “risks” of masking outside are next to nil, some have also argued that people shouldn’t mistakenly believe that this is an important way of lowering their transmission risk, next to clearly effective measures like the ventilation of indoor spaces. More recently, the debate over mask-wearing has morphed into a nonsensical right-wing talking point, with pundits such as Tucker Carlson arguing that making children wear masks outside is akin to child abuse.
However low the risk of catching or spreading covid-19 outdoors may be, it’s even drastically lower for fully vaccinated people, since the vaccines are highly effective at both preventing illness and infection from the coronavirus. According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people “can gather or conduct activities outdoors without wearing a mask except in certain crowded settings and venues.”
The CDC’s updated guidelines also say that unvaccinated people can safely go unmasked outdoors around fully vaccinated friends and family (an important consideration for children, who are still unable to receive the vaccine), and with other unvaccinated people in their household while walking, running, or biking outdoors.
For now, though, all people are still recommended to wear masks while conducting public indoor activities like shopping, getting a haircut, riding public transportation, or going to a movie theatre. Unvaccinated people who attend crowded indoor events continue to be at relatively high risk for infection, even with masks on. Fully vaccinated people are also encouraged to keep masking up indoors around people at high risk for serious illness and death, such as those with weakened immune systems.
Still, by relaxing many of these measures for vaccinated people, the hope is that it will only encourage “coronavirus vaccine acceptance and uptake,” the CDC’s guidance states. “Therefore, there are several activities that fully vaccinated people can resume now, at low risk to themselves, while being mindful of the potential risk of transmitting the disease to others.”