Vaccinated People Can Now Go Maskless, Even Indoors and in Crowds

The CDC relaxed its guidelines in most situations, though states and businesses can still set their own rules

Three members of a family without a face mask on standing together in a kitchen Wagner Okasaki/iStock

If you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19—meaning two weeks past your last dose—you don’t need to wear a mask or adhere to social distancing advice anymore in most situations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today.

“This is an exciting and powerful moment,” CDC director Rochelle R. Walensky, MD, said in a press briefing. “You can start doing the things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.” Such activities include going to an indoor movie theater, working out at a gym, eating indoors at a restaurant, and attending a worship service. 

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It’s the second time in less than a month that the agency sanctioned greater freedoms for those who are vaccinated. In late April, it said that vaccinated people could go maskless outdoors, unless they were in a crowd. But today those restrictions were lifted, too. Attending an outdoor event with lots of other people, such as a concert or baseball game, without a mask is fine. 

Still, don’t toss your face coverings just yet. The agency said there are still some situations where even vaccinated people should continue to wear masks. That includes on planes, trains, buses, and other forms of public transportation, as well as inside airline terminals, train stations, and other transit hubs. You should also still wear a mask in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and other healthcare settings. 

In addition, states, municipalities, and businesses can still set their own rules, which supersede the CDC guidelines, the agency said. So if a business has a sign on the door that says you’re required to wear a mask inside, or your employer requires you to wear a mask while on site for your job, you have to comply

Today’s announcement from the CDC makes sense, says Consumer Reports’ chief scientific officer, James H. Dickerson, PhD, “given the increasing numbers of people that are fully vaccinated or in line to get vaccinated, and the expanse of people who are eligible to get vaccines in different states.”

Still, it’s likely to create some confusion. “You can’t distinguish fully vaccinated people who don’t wear masks from unvaccinated people who don’t wear masks,” he says.

In the briefing, Walensky said that recent large drops in COVID-19 cases and the increased availability of vaccines prompted the agency to change its advice. In just the past week, case rates in the U.S. fell by a third. Vaccines are now easier to come by, and more people—namely 12- to 16-year-olds—are eligible to be vaccinated. 

She also pointed to recent research documenting the vaccines’ effectiveness in real-world settings and against several common COVID-19 variants, as well as at preventing the spread of the virus. That all adds up to people being very well-protected from COVID-19, even indoors in scenarios that would have been considered high-risk for transmission just a few months ago.

Still, Dickerson cautions, it’s not clear that the vaccines work against all variants now known, and it’s possible that other vaccine-resistant variants may emerge in the future.

So it’s reasonable, Dickerson says, for vaccinated people to keep wearing masks if they don’t yet feel comfortable giving them up. “If you still feel uncertain about a situation or a scenario . . . even when fully vaccinated, it’s not a bad idea to continue wearing a mask,” he says. That’s especially true for people who work in jobs that put them in close contact with the public, or who are immunocompromised, he says.

The CDC notes in its new guidance that vaccinated people with an underlying health condition or who take immune-system-weakening medications should talk with their doctors about what’s safe. You may want to keep up with masking, distancing, and other precautions. 

Also, if you’re fully vaccinated but you start feeling sick, resume using your mask when in public and get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible, the agency advises. 

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob