Fully-vaccinated Americans can finally stop wearing their masks almost anywhere – indoors or outdoors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Thursday.
Those who have finished their shot regimen can now go out to eat, see a movie, shake hands and give hugs at will, according to the new guidance.
The new guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but could ease restrictions for reopening workplaces and schools. People who are fully vaccinated but immunocompromised people may still be advised by their doctors to keep masking.
Even President Biden – along with several lawmakers meeting him to discuss infrastructure in the Oval Office – stripped off his mask upon the news, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Democrat from New York, told the Guardian.
However, the CDC’s recommendation is just that – an unenforceable recommendation. States, cities and businesses can still require masks. The office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said its health department is reviewing the new guidelines, but has not issued an official update.
Equinox Gym notified members Thursday afternoon that masks are still required while working out at its New York gyms.
The White House officially lifted its mandate requiring masks on the premise, allowing staffers and journalists on Thursday to uncover their faces on for the first time since Biden took office.
‘Today is a great day for America,’ Biden said in an afternoon press conference, as he declared the new guidance a ‘great milestone.’
The ability for vaccinated Americans to unmask comes as a product of enough people being vaccinated to start to peel back other measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
More than a third of the U.S. population – and 45 percent of adults – are now fully vaccinated, and nearly 60 percent of adults have had at least a first shot. As vaccination has become widespread, scientists in the U.S. – and especially in Israel – have had a chance to see real-world proof that the shots prevent almost all transmission.
What’s more, as vaccination rates have risen, President Biden noted that average daily COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have fallen to their lowest level since April 2020 – just after the pandemic took hold in the U.S. – falling to 586 a day, according to CDC data.
And cases are nearing pandemic-lows too. The seven-day rolling average of new infections is down to 36,832 – the lowest it’s been since the July lull between surges.
‘Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in activities indoors or outdoors, large or small, without physical distancing,’ announced CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky during a Friday White House press briefing, she said, praising the rapid vaccination effort for allowing masks to come off, and Covid cases to stay down.
IN THE GREEN: CDC’s updated infographics shows that fully vaccinated Americans can safely do just about anything without wearing a mask
‘If you are fully vaccinated you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some semblance of normalcy.
‘This is an exciting and powerful moment.’
CDC’s announcement comes as the agency and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people – people who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose – in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot.
With the guidelines relaxed, politicians and public figures on both sides of the aisle shifted to celebrating on Thursday afternoon.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared himself ‘free at last’ as he left the Senate for the week, sans mask.
First lady Dr Jill Biden exited her plane maskless upon landing in West Virginia to visit a vaccination clinic for students, after departing Washington, D.C. in a pink face covering. Actress Jennifer Garner, who is touring with the first lady, whipped off her own face covering when she greeted a maskless Biden on the tarmac.
In a seemingly prescient moment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi removed her mask in public for the first time in months on earlier Thursday during her weekly Capitol Hill press conference.
She took off her face covering once she got to the podium, and cited new House rules that require all members to wear masks on the floor – unless they are speaking.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi took off her mask in public for the first time in months during her Thursday press conference, citing new House Rules requiring members to wear masks on the floor unless they are speaking (left). The CDC is expected to update its guidelines for the public to say that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors – except in crowded settings like planes and buses. The CDC is expected to say on Thursday that people can stop wearing masks indoors. It comes after Republican lawmakers blasted CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky (right) over the agency’s mask guidelines on Tuesday
First lady Jill Biden exited her plane maskless upon landing in West Virginia to visit a vaccination clinic for students, after departing Washington, D.C. in a pink face covering. Actress Jennifer Garner, who is touring with the first lady, whipped off her own face covering when she greeted a maskless Biden on the tarmac
HOW AMERICA FLIP-FLOPPED ON FACE MASKS FOR COVID-19
DECEMBER 31 2019: Officials in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei Province identify a cluster of pneumonia cases from an unknown cause.
JANUARY 12 2020: China shares genetic sequence of a new virus, later named SARS-NoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19.
JANUARY 21 2020: CDC confirms first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. in a man in his 30s who returned to Washington state from China.
FEBRUARY 12 2020: CDC tells Americans it does not recommend masks.
At the time, there were just 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and officials that day confirmed the first death.
‘At this time, some partners are reporting higher than usual demand for select N95 respirators and face masks. CDC does not currently recommend the use of face masks for the general public. This virus is not spreading in the community,’ said then-director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Dr Nancy Messonnier.
The CDC did say that people who were sick with possible COVID-19 or in close contact with someone who might have it should wear a mask when around others.
MARCH 2020: Federal officials at the CDC, Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Surgeon General all said that while the U.S. should brace for the spread of coronavirus, Americans should not wear them if they were not sick with suspected Covid or around someone who might be infected.
Experts said that surgical and cloth masks were not tightly woven enough to reduce the spread of the tiny virus and that people didn’t know how to properly use them.
And they continued to urge Americans not to buy up high-grade N95 masks in order to preserve them for health care workers who might be in contact with COVID-19 patients.
Masks were already being bought up, and former President Trump used the Defense Production Act to obtain N95s from M3 to bolster supplies for health care workers.
APRIL 3 2020: CDC officially recommends all Americans wear cloth masks in public voluntarily.
Former President Trump announced the guidelines, but said he would not wear one. He would not e seen wearing a mask until July 11.
APRIL 10 2020: Masks became extremely hard to find as Americans bought up massive supplies of them and shipments from china, where mot were made, were cut off.
APRIL 17 2020: Five states – New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland and New York, had all mandated masks in public by this date.
JUNE 8 2020: The WHO, which had also urged people not to buy masks to preserve supply for medical workers, finally recommended people wear masks in public.
JULY 11 2020: Former President Trump was seen wearing a face mask for the first time while visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC. More than 20 states already had mask mandates in place.
JANUARY 20 2021: President Biden issued a mask mandate for all federal property.
JANUARY 31 2021: TSA issues a mask mandate for all federally operated mass transit, including buses, trains, train stations, airplanes and airports.
APRIL 6 2021: CDC updates guidance to say that wearing two masks, such as a cloth mask over a surgical one, may offer up to 95 percent better protection than wearing two – almost exactly one year after it made its first mask recommendation.
APRIL 20 2021: CDC updates its guidelines to say that fully vaccinated Americans can safely exercise and gather with vaccinated and unvaccinated people outdoors – but should still wear a mask indoors if they are around vaccinated people or when in crowded outdoor settings like concerts.
MAY 13 2021: CDC updates its guidelines again to say that fully vaccinated Americans can go without masks indoors or outdoors, in large or small groups, except in crowded indoor locations like planes, buses and prisons, or in places with specific measures like hospitals.
The CDC’s new guidance also comes two weeks after the agency recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds – advice that White House adviser Dr Anthony Fauci only just publicly endorsed earlier on Thursday.
In that update, the CDC also exaggerated the risk of Covid transmission outdoors as accounting for less than 10 percent of cases when the figure is likely less than one percent, experts say.
That’s sown distrust and confusion, fueling claims that the CDC has been keeping mask guidelines in places longer than it needs to.
Things came to a head earlier this week, as Republican lawmakers grilled CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky over masking guidelines, claiming that the agency had let them drag on too long.
To-date, more than 117 million Americans are fully vaccinated, accounting for just over a third of the U.S. population, and 45 percent of adults have had at least one dose. The CDC also recommended on Wednesday that eligibility to get Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine be expanded to children as young as 12.
Real-world data, mostly gathered in hospitals where CDC is expected to still advise masking – suggests that vaccination cuts the risk of infection by some 97 percent among staff who primarily interacted indoors. But that data was gathered while guidelines recommended masks were still in place, so how the virus could spread among vaccinated, unmasked people indoors remains unknown.
The chance to ditch the mask ‘could only happen because of the work of so many who made sure we had the rapid administration of three safe, effective vaccines,’ said Dr Walensky.
‘It could also only happen because we had an adequate supply of those vaccines for everyone 12 years and older in this country.’
Her remarks come less than 24 hours after the CDC recommended that states start giving Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to children as young as 12. The FDA on Monday expanded emergency use authorization for the shot to children between 12 and 15 (it was previously available to those 16 and older).
Health officials have welcomed the expansion, but critics have noted that the U.S. is vaccinating children against a virus that is only fatal to less than one percent of kids who get it before sharing vaccines with poorer nations where more at-risk adults and health care workers remain unvaccinated, such as India.
Despite her optimism and enthusiasm for the speed of the U.S. vaccine rollout, Dr Walensky cautioned that there is not guarantee that the U.S. is fully past the crisis.
‘This past year has shown us that this virus can be unpredictable, so if things get worse, there is always a chance we may need to make changes to these recommendations, but 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.’
Republican lawmakers on Tuesday charged that health guidelines have unnecessarily remained in place even as more and more Americans get vaccinated.
Collins, who was reelected to her fifth term in November, told Walensky that she ‘used to have the utmost respect for the guidance from the CDC’ but now feels it has issued ‘conflicting, confusing guidance’ that contradicts health officials.
‘I used to have the utmost respect for the guidance from the CDC. I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don’t anymore,’ she lectured the agency head.
She accused the agency – whose leaders repeatedly said they operate based on the science and the available data – of ‘exaggerating’ the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
‘So, here we have unnecessary barriers to reopening schools, exaggerating the risks of outdoor transmission, and unworkable restrictions on summer camps. Why does this matter?’ Collins continued. ‘It matters because it undermines public confidence in your recommendation, in the recommendations that do make sense, in the recommendations that Americans should be following.’
The attack by Collins, an influential senator who sometimes cooperates with Democrats, came as her state’s Democratic governor joined a zoom call with President Joe Biden to talk about vaccine distribution and the pandemic.
At one point, Maine Gov. Janet Mills joked about people in her state responded to the CDC’s initially recommended 6-foot social distancing guidance. ‘Some people asked, why so close?’ she quipped.
Dr Anthony Fauci had only publicly endorsed the previous guidelines, advising fully vaccinated Americans they could unmask outdoors except in crowded places, for the first time earlier on Thursday
The updated guidance is expected to still recommend that fully vaccinated Americans wear masks in certain crowded settings, like airplanes (pictured, file) and buses. The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) renewed its mask requirement for all public mass transit – including airplanes and train stations – on April 30
Walensky – who in March warned about a feeling of ‘impending doom’ as U.S. infections rose – spoke with optimism about vaccines approved for young people aged 12-15 – even appearing to suggest they lobby their parents for the shot.
She made the statement when asked about government approval to extend the emergency use authorization for Pfizer for children aged 12-15.
‘I recognize some parents want to see how it goes, but I am encouraging all children to be vaccinated,’ she said during the hearing. ‘And I am also encouraging children to ask for the vaccine.’
‘I have a 16-year-old and I continue he wanted to get the vaccine. He wants his life back,’ she said.
Officials are eyeing young people as a cohort that can help boost the nation’s overall vaccine rates – with a substantial number of adults still saying they aren’t sure they want to get the shots.