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CDC eases guidance on indoor mask-wearing for vaccinated people

Sign notifies travelers they need to wear a

Sign notifies travelers they need to wear a mask as they prepare to check in for their Delta airlines flight at the Miami International Airport on Feb. 1.   Credit: TNS/Joe Raedle

WASHINGTON — In a major step toward fully reopening the country and restoring life before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that fully vaccinated Americans will no longer be required to wear masks or abide by social distancing requirements in most indoor and outdoor settings.

The relaxed rules — released amid a steady decline in new COVID-19 infections — still call for the use of masks and social distancing when traveling on airplanes, trains and buses, and at health care facilities, prisons and homeless shelters. But they mark a major turning point in the country’s more than yearlong battle with the virus.

"Once you are fully vaccinated, two weeks after your last dose, you can shed your mask," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky during a virtual news briefing held by the White House.  

"If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic," Walensky said. "We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Based on a continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated."

Walensky said "immune-compromised" Americans should consult with their doctors about whether to continue wearing a mask, but for the most part "anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing."

The easing of the rules for vaccinated Americans is the latest step in returning the country back to a pre-pandemic normal, but Walensky cautioned that if COVID-19 rates start to climb, and "things get worse, there is always a chance we may need to make changes to these recommendations."

President Joe Biden, in a Rose Garden address, called the new rules "a great milestone," and said the easing of restrictions was due in large part to those who have been vaccinated. More than 46% of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine dose. The president has set a goal of increasing that number to 70% by the Fourth of July.

"When our country asked you to get vaccinated, you did," Biden said. "The American people stepped up. You did what I consider to be your patriotic duty. And that’s how we’ve gotten to this day."

Walensky urged unvaccinated Americans to join the more than 154 million U.S. adults who have received at least one dose of three federally approved vaccines. More than 117 million are fully vaccinated, and the country’s overall vaccination numbers are expected to increase after the federal government approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine on adolescents ages 12 to 15.

"We know that the more people are vaccinated, the less cases we will have, and the less chance of a new spike or additional variants emerging," Walensky said.

Despite the decrease in new infections, deaths and hospitalizations, the pace of vaccinations has started to slow, and public health officials nationwide have continued to ramp up their efforts to entice more Americans to show up for a shot by offering free tickets to sporting events, restaurant discounts and other freebies.

In Nassau, as of Thursday morning, 70.4% of adults ages 18 and over have received at least one vaccine dose, and in Suffolk nearly 63% of adults have received at least one, according to state health data.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, responding to the guidelines, said: "For anyone looking for a good reason to get vaccinated in addition to them being effective, safe and free, this is it."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the new guidelines "underscores the need to revisit New York State guidance for schools — including for hybrid learning, masks, graduation, and prom."

"We must address the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the well-being of our children, who deserve to have a normal education and to get their lives back as soon as possible," said Curran, who on Wednesday issued a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asking the state to revisit its rules surrounding schools.

Cuomo, in a statement issued after the CDC announcement, said he and state health officials, including state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, "are reviewing" the new rules and would consult "our partners and health experts in surrounding states."

"In New York, we have always relied on the facts and the science to guide us throughout the worst of this pandemic and in our successful reopening," Cuomo said.

What to know

  • The CDC said fully vaccinated Americans will no longer be required to wear masks or abide by social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings.
  • But it still urges the use of masks and social distancing when on airplanes, trains and buses, and at health care facilities, prisons and homeless shelters.
  • It also warned that the guidelines could change if COVID-19 rates start to climb.

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease doctor with Northwell Health, advised vaccinated New Yorkers to continue wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces such as supermarkets while the state’s COVID-19 numbers remain relatively high.

"Those crowded indoor places will get safer and safer as the rates of COVID go down," said Hirsch, an assistant professor of infectious disease at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. "But I’m still very, very nervous about those spaces …"

Walensky, asked by reporters about the impact of the new guidelines on schools, said the CDC is continuing to review its policies regarding the use of masks and social distancing among students and teachers.

"This guidance is really just for individuals who are vaccinated and what they can do safely do, and we have work ahead of us in terms of updating our guidance with regard to all of our settings," including schools and camps, Walensky said.

The updated CDC guidelines come more than a year after the agency recommended the use of masks in April 2020 as the airborne disease quickly spread through the country.

Mask-wearing soon emerged as a deeply polarizing issue — protesters in various states held small mask-burning rallies and viral videos captured numerous instances of store clerks, cabdrivers and transit passengers being assaulted by those refusing to wear a mask in public.

The president acknowledged there is no mechanism for the federal government to enforce mask-wearing among those who are not fully vaccinated, but said he believed "the vast majority of the American people care about the safety of their neighbors, care about the safety of their families."

"It’s not an enforcement thing, we’re not gonna go out and arrest people," Biden said.

Biden, noted that some Americans may "feel more comfortable" continuing to wear a mask, and he called on people to "please treat them with kindness and respect."

"We’ve had too much conflict. Too much bitterness. Too much anger. Too much polarization over this issue about wearing masks. Let’s put it to rest," Biden said. "Let’s remember, we’re all Americans. Let’s remember that we are all in this together."

In recent weeks, Biden has come under increasing pressure to ease the federal mask-wearing requirements for those fully vaccinated. Critics argued that he was sending mixed signals about the effectiveness of the vaccines and the CDC’s own guidance on mask-wearing by continuing to wear a mask outdoors and when in small gatherings with lawmakers who were also vaccinated.

On Thursday afternoon, shortly after the CDC announcement, White House staffers, who have all been vaccinated, were directed to remove their masks. Biden, stepping out of the Oval Office to deliver his speech, did so without a mask.

With Rachelle Blidner, Scott Eidler and David Olson.