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The New CDC Mask Guidance: Questions and Answers

Map of USA with people wearing face masks.
By Richard Dahl on May 17, 2021 10:01 AM

On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued surprising new guidance: People who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus may drop mask-wearing in most situations, including indoors.

Only 2 ½ weeks earlier, the CDC said that it was OK for fully vaccinated people to remove masks outdoors but not in crowded spaces. But with the announcement on May 13, CDC's director, Dr. Rochelle Walinsky, said the agency had re-evaluated its position. She pointed out that infections had declined by about one-third during that span and that vaccines had become more widely available.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the announcement came two days after Senate Republicans grilled her on the agency's mask messaging and other restrictions.

Many Epidemiologists Disagree

The announcement was a stunner for many, including a large majority of epidemiologists who were recently surveyed by The New York Times. These epidemiologists sharply disagreed with the CDC, saying they believed Americans need to wear masks indoors for at least another year.

The announcement also sent state and local governmental officials, as well as companies, scrambling to evaluate their own rules on mask-wearing.

The result of the CDC's announcement, in other words, has been a lot of confusion.

In an effort to shed some light on the situation and provide some answers, we've assembled a Q&A, which we hope will be helpful in reducing confusion.

Does this mean masks are no longer required anywhere?

Not quite. The CDC identified several places where everyone, including vaccinated people, should still wear masks: health-care facilities, while using public transit and flying, in congregate settings such as homeless shelters, and in jails or prisons.

Does this mean stores must drop mask requirements?

No. Stores are free, as always, to require masks just as they might require the wearing of shirts and shoes.

Who is justified in claiming the new freedom to not wear a mask?

In the absence of a universal vaccination certification method, we appear to be left with an honor system. A variety of privately controlled digital systems to verify health credentials are being used around the world by airlines, pharmacy chains, and governments (including New York State with its Excelsior Pass), but for most people, the paper COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card is all they have for proof – and those cards, which are easily forged, aren't terribly conclusive.

How will you know whether the unmasked person next to you has been vaccinated?

You won't. The CDC's new policy relies almost entirely on trust. It's also important to remember, however, that the person bearing the greatest risk in that scenario is not you; it is the unvaccinated person next to you. The biggest risk is that unmasked and unvaccinated vaccine skeptics will spread the disease among themselves. Will they engage in this kind of behavior? If the results of a poll that were released May 6 by Economist/YouGov is any indication, the answer is yes.

What happens to state and local governmental mask mandates?

The new CDC advice does not override them. But in the hours following the CDC's announcement, several states began to lift their mandates. Many states, mostly those in Republican control, had already lifted the mandates. It's also important to note that cities are still free to make their own rules. For instance, Minnesota is following the CDC recommendation, but the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are continuing their mask requirements. It may be wise to check with state and local government websites for updates.

Do I have to wear a mask if I'm not vaccinated?

The CDC still recommends unvaccinated people wear masks in most situations, and that means you should follow the restrictions in your state or locale.

How long do I have to wait after being vaccinated before I can stop wearing a mask?

Generally, two weeks after you've received your second shot or your single Johnson & Johnson shot.

If you are vaccinated, what should you do?

You should keep in mind that some businesses and government entities can still require masks. Also, if you ride public transportation or are visiting someone in a nursing home or health care facility, you will still need a mask.

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