Fully vaccinated people can skip the mask when they get together outside with others, vaccinated or not, according to updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Except in crowded outdoor situations like concerts or sports stadiums, vaccinated people are unlikely to catch or spread the coronavirus behind COVID-19 when they get together outside, CDC said in new recommendations issued Tuesday.
"Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what they cannot do," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Tuesday. "Today, I'm going to tell you some of the things you can do if you are fully vaccinated."
"Fully vaccinated" means two weeks after your last shot, when the immune response has kicked in completely.
Dining outside? No problem, CDC says. Put your mask away. Small backyard barbecue? Masks optional. Walking, running or biking? Go ahead and free your face.
The only time vaccinated people need to wear masks outdoors is when they are in crowds, like at street festivals, parades, farmers markets or political rallies, for example.
Keep that mask handy, however. CDC still says to mask up when you go inside.
But do go inside, the recommendations say. Indoor dining, movies, haircuts, religious services, exercise classes, and other indoor public spaces all are much safer for vaccinated people than unvaccinated.
Just wear a mask.
Why wear a mask indoors if you are vaccinated?
"At their best, these vaccines are 95% effective," said Vanderbilt University Medical Center infectious diseases professor William Schaffner. "I did not say 100%. So, there's still that small risk that you could yourself acquire the infection."
Even if a vaccinated person does not get seriously ill, there remains a chance that the person could pass the virus on to someone who is not vaccinated.
Also, not wearing a mask puts an unfair burden on workers to enforce mask rules.
"You can't expect someone at a store to go around and look at people's vaccination status," noted Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Indoor get-togethers without masks are fine when everyone is vaccinated, as earlier CDC guidelines said.
The guidelines also note that unvaccinated people can walk, run or bike outside without a mask, a recommendation that some experts said is long overdue.
"If you're walking outside and passing someone for a second, even without vaccination, you did not need to be wearing a mask," said Leana Wen, health policy professor at The George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner. "So, I'm glad that the Biden administration is clarifying that part."
"I do still think that their guidance is overly cautious," she added. "But at least now they are finally differentiating between what it is that people can do once they're fully vaccinated compared to those who are not."
The updated recommendations give people more of an incentive to get vaccinated, Wen said.
The recommendation regarding wearing masks indoors will likely remain until a bigger chunk of the population is vaccinated and the case count comes down from where it is today, in the tens of thousands, Adalja said.
The pace of vaccination has slowed, however, from more than 3 million shots per day two weeks ago to about 2.5 million.
The people who were ready and willing to get vaccinated have largely done so. Now, the hard work of overcoming hesitancy begins.
"The more people who are vaccinated, the more steps we can take towards spending time with people we love doing the things we love to enjoy," Walensky said.