You Can Skip a Mask Outside If You're Vaccinated (Unless You're in a Crowd)

New CDC guidelines loosen several restrictions

People hiking without masks monkeybusinessimages

People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks outdoors unless they are in a crowded area like a concert or packed stadium, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday.

The approved outdoor activities for people who are least two weeks past their last shot include exercising, eating at a restaurant with friends, and attending a small gathering with vaccinated or unvaccinated people, according to the agency’s new guidelines.

“If you are vaccinated, you can do more things, more safely, both outdoors as well as indoors,” President Joe Biden said while discussing the new guidance at the White House on Tuesday. “So for those who haven’t gotten their vaccination yet, especially if you are younger or think you don’t need it, this is another reason to go get vaccinated now.”

Unvaccinated people can also drop the mask when exercising outdoors, but only when they’re alone or with members of their household, the CDC says. They can also go maskless if they are getting together with a small group of family or friends who have all been fully vaccinated.

More on COVID-19

Most transmission happens indoors, where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is almost 20 times higher than outdoors, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said at a Tuesday news conference. That fact, combined with increases in the number of people who have been vaccinated and recent declines in the COVID-19 case rate, led the agency to update its guidance, she said.

“Being fully vaccinated does clearly facilitate minimizing one’s risk of catching, spreading, and falling ill from COVID-19,” says James Dickerson, PhD, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. “The guidance makes sense, but it does not mean that even vaccinated people should abandon masks entirely.”

What You Can and Can’t Do Now

The new guidelines are a sign of increasing freedoms that come with vaccination. “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.

The CDC has published an infographic that assigns a risk level to various activities for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and indicates when each group should wear a mask and take other precautions (PDF).

Masks are required outdoors only at crowded events, where there may be many unvaccinated people, according to Walensky. If you’re not yet vaccinated, such a crowded gathering would be considered one of the least safe situations to be in, even if you are wearing a mask, according to the guidance.

In March, the CDC said that it was safe for fully vaccinated people to gather indoors without a mask with a small group of other fully vaccinated people, or with unvaccinated people from a single household, provided the unvaccinated individuals are at low risk for complications from COVID-19.

Otherwise, the CDC still recommends that everyone wear a mask indoors. There, too, vaccinated people have more options. Data has shown that vaccinated people who wear a mask can feel safe engaging in a number of indoor activities—such as going to the movies, attending a worship service, or participating in a high-intensity exercise class—that would be riskier for unvaccinated people.

As more people get vaccinated and coronavirus cases go down, the CDC will be able to further update guidance on where masks are and aren’t needed, according to Walensky.

Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).