New COVID-19 Guidelines: When You Can Take Off Your Mask

An expert explains the CDC’s updated recommendations for when people who are fully vaccinated need to wear masks and when they can take them off.

People outdoors on bikes and walking, some with masks and some without

With the weather getting warmer and new cases of COVID-19 decreasing, there’s good news for the fully vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its guidance on indoor and outdoor precautions, advising that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in most indoor or outdoor settings, except where required by law or rules set by workplaces or local businesses.

“For fully vaccinated people, the CDC is saying that you can resume most activities that you enjoyed prior to the pandemic without wearing a mask or social distancing,” explains Dr. Ashwin Vasan, an assistant attending physician in the Department of Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Exercising outdoors or going to the gym, picnicking with your friends, attending small indoor gatherings, eating indoors at a restaurant, or going to see a movie, if you are fully vaccinated, you should be able to do these activities safely without a mask.”

Dr. Ashwin Vasan

Dr. Ashwin Vasan

Health Matters spoke to Dr. Vasan, who is also an assistant professor at the Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, to learn more about the new mask guidelines and what they mean for the community at large.

What has changed with the CDC’s new mask guidelines?
The biggest change with the new mask guidelines is what is now considered safe for fully vaccinated people. Fully vaccinated people (meaning two weeks have passed since their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or the one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) can now enjoy a majority of indoor and outdoor activities without a mask, except where required by local, state, or federal law.

What are the exceptions where we still need masks?
Masks are still required on public transportation, in nursing homes, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and schools. And you will still need to follow the guidance of workplaces or local businesses if they require masks.

Why are these indoor and outdoor activities now considered safe to do without a mask?
We’re continuing to see across the country the case rates go down, so it looks like we may have turned a corner. There is currently no sense that there’s going to be another surge, and we’re seeing large numbers of vaccinations. Overall, we’ve hit a pretty good state where nearly 62% of adult New Yorkers have gotten at least one dose, 52% are fully vaccinated, and vaccines are now available for kids as young as 12. We also know that approximately 80% of the immunity is conferred through the first dose in most subjects.

For outdoor activities, weather is important, too. We know that sunlight (UV light) and increased humidity can neutralize the virus or make it harder for the virus to transmit itself in the air, and so outdoors is still substantially safer than indoors. If we can keep pushing through with vaccinations, we can actually get to where we want to be as a city and as a country.

Will these changes in mask guidelines motivate vaccine-hesitant people to get a vaccine?
I hope so. I think this was the CDC’s way of also giving another incentive to people to get vaccinated, that if you get vaccinated you can start safely doing things outside without a mask.

Why do you suspect many people still haven’t gotten vaccinated?
Vaccine hesitancy is one of many factors. There is still a lot of misinformation and hesitancy around the vaccine itself, but we continue to see lower-income communities and communities of color struggle with making appointments, transportation or logistics of getting the vaccine, or the inability of people to take time off of work. You’re seeing millions of people forgo their second dose of the vaccine due to concerns about logistics or side effects. And in some cases, young people are hearing that they don’t need to get the vaccine.

If we see vaccination rates drop off, we’re not going to reach the community-level protection that we need to really stomp this out. This is particularly concerning as we see more transmissible and potentially more deadly variants circulating. Eventually those strains will become the dominant strain, and could even evade our current vaccines, if we don’t get enough people vaccinated to push down transmission nationwide and globally.

How are we doing in terms of reaching the necessary community-level protection?
If you consider where we were in January when there were 225,000 cases per day in the U.S., I think we’re now averaging between 30 and 40 thousand cases per day , so we’re doing much, much better. There are still pockets in the country that are concerning. You still have states like Michigan and Colorado that still have higher case counts, but New York has turned the corner. I think overall we’re headed in the right direction. With 58% of adults in New York City having received one dose – 47% of the population if you count those 12 and older –another 20% means we’re approaching the kinds of levels of community protection that we need to start to see a massive drop-off in cases. With children age 12 to 15 now eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, even more of the population will be protected.

But it’s going to take us pushing through some of these divides based on race, ethnicity, income, politics and general access to vaccines, and deep outreach into the communities that are still showing a lot of hesitancy to help relieve structural barriers for people. We talk about hesitancy a lot, but a lot of people just struggle to navigate the internet, or get transportation, or get time off of work. There’s a trust deficit in our country, built up over years, that is proving hard to tackle, but we must (do so) if we hope to get the majority of people protected through vaccination.

With nearly 60 percent of adults in the country now having received at least one vaccine dose, what’s next in terms of guidelines for face masks?
I think we’ll continue to see a relaxing of rules in places that have required masks since the pandemic began. It’s important to remember that when you come up with guidelines like this, you have to design for everyone. And that means considering people who aren’t yet vaccinated, or people who are still vulnerable, and keeping them safe as well.
When you have ever-changing and increasing amounts of information about a subject, you adapt to that new information. That’s science. Every day we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, what’s safe and what isn’t. And this is our latest, best attempt to follow the science, which now indicates that it’s safe to do these things indoor or outdoors without a mask if you’re fully vaccinated.

These new guidelines are another step towards getting back to normal. And I think this should give people hope. I think people should feel really good and optimistic about this.