What the Very Latest U.S. Rules on Masks Mean

U.S. authorities have been all over the map when it comes to whether ordinary people should wear masks in the era of the coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged it in most circumstances, in part to preserve supplies for health workers, before changing its position only in April of that year. One of President Joe Biden’s first acts in office was to break with his predecessor by issuing a nationwide, if limited, mask mandate. Biden asked people to mask up until at least the end of April. In May, U.S. health authorities significantly relaxed their recommendations for fully vaccinated people, going beyond easings announced just weeks earlier.

1. What’s the latest loosening?

Citing growing evidence that vaccines are effective outside of clinical trials and against variants of the coronavirus, and that fully vaccinated people are at low risk of spreading the virus to someone else, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated Americans can ditch their masks in most settings, even indoors or in large groups. However, the CDC guidance spelled out ample exceptions that signal that the era of masks isn’t over.

2. What are the exceptions?

The agency still recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation; in transportation hubs; in all health care settings; correctional facilities; homeless shelters; and where required by state and local governments or businesses. And masks are still recommended for people who are only partially vaccinated -- those who are less than two weeks from having received their final dose -- or who haven’t gotten a vaccine, including kids.

3. How many Americans are vaccinated?

About 59% of American adults have received at least one shot, and 46% have received either both doses of a two-dose vaccine or the single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. The Covid-19 vaccine made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE was cleared May 10 for use in children ages 12 to 15 years old, which will fuel the inoculation campaign. Still, just 35% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and an entire population group -- children under age 12 -- doesn’t yet qualify for a shot. That has left some critics questioning whether the latest move by the typically cautious CDC was premature. Just weeks earlier, the agency had said fully vaccinated people could drop their masks but only when exercising, dining and socializing outdoors in small groups, as well as when gathering indoors with other fully vaccinated people.

4. What are the implications of the CDC’s guidance?

The CDC guidance is exactly that: advice. There are no CDC police. States are largely responsible for public health measures, and the 25 states that have mask mandates in effect will have to respond, which could take some time. Many states relaxed their mask requirements in response to the CDC’s April loosening of recommendations; the governors of Connecticut and Illinois have already said they will align with the newest ones. Private businesses, meanwhile, were caught off-guard by the new guidance, and are rushing to assess their policies.

5. What about schools?

The CDC issues a range of advice, and it doesn’t all change at once. For instance, its advice on schools still calls for universal mask-wearing -- though Thursday’s announcement signals that it would be low-risk for fully vaccinated teachers and teens to abandon their masks. That could be updated soon, along with other site-specific or industry-specific guidelines.

6. What does this mean for kids and families?

The U.S. only recently authorized vaccines for those ages 12 to 15, and younger kids will have longer to wait, though they are also less likely to suffer serious illness. The new guidance sets up a scenario where fully vaccinated parents don’t know what the rules are with unvaccinated children. If families want to go by the book, the advice is that unvaccinated people, including kids age 2 and older, should generally still wear masks in indoor settings aside from their home. The CDC had already loosened the rules for outdoors.

7. What have other countries done?

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control relaxed its mask-wearing guidelines for fully vaccinated people in April, saying they have low risk of contracting or spreading the virus, although it suggested that even vaccinated people continue to wear masks in public spaces or indoors with people from other households. Israel lifted an outdoor mask mandate after a massive vaccination effort.

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