WASHINGTON – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took an important step on Tuesday to lure Americans into a post-pandemic world. They have relaxed the rules for wearing masks outdoors as coronavirus cases decline and people scrape at restrictions.
The mask tour is humble and carefully written: Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus no longer need to wear a mask outdoors, while walking, running, hiking, or biking alone or in small gatherings, including with members of their own household. Masks are still required in crowded outdoor venues such as sports stadiums, the CDC said.
But President Biden hailed it as a milestone in the pandemic. He wore a mask as he approached the lectern in the White House grounds on a warm spring day – and held it off sharply as he walked back into the White House when he was finished.
“Go get the shot. It’s never been easier, ”said Biden. “And once you are fully vaccinated, you can do without a mask when you are outside and away from crowds.”
The CDC stopped telling even fully vaccinated people that they could take off their masks completely outdoors – citing the worrying risk that remains for the transmission of the coronavirus, unknown vaccination levels in people in crowds and the still high case numbers in some regions of the country. The instructions also warned vaccinated people not to go without a mask at medium-sized outdoor gatherings.
But even the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, emphasizing a more expansive interpretation, told reporters at a briefing at the White House, “We no longer feel that the vaccinated people need masks in the open air,” outside of “large public venues like concerts, stadiums and the like.”
The order had an immediate impact on states. Governors in California, New York, Louisiana, Maine and Massachusetts relaxed all outside mask mandates following the CDC’s announcement. In Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, went much further and ignored the advice of the federal government when he said it was “time for parties and weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms,” “with no limits to the gathering of greats” . ”
On Capitol Hill, a group of Republican lawmakers who are also medical professionals posted a vaccination advertisement Tuesday wearing white coats with stethoscopes around their necks. Senator Roger Marshall, a newly minted Republican from Kansas and a doctor, told viewers the reason for the vaccination was simple: “So we can throw away our masks and live life as freely as before.”
Mr Marshall, who organized the effort, said it was based on research by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who worked to reduce vaccine reluctance among conservatives. In an interview, Mr Luntz said Mr Biden’s announcement was a positive move and could give people who are not vaccinated a reason to get their shots.
“It gives them a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “‘Tell me when to get rid of my mask’ is actually the language they use. The fact that this is a meaningful, measurable step towards returning to normal is a big deal.”
For Mr Biden, who will address Congress on Wednesday and will celebrate his 100th day in office on Thursday, the CDC announcement was a moment to learn about the “amazing progress” Americans have made since taking office . Next week, he said, he will outline a plan “to bring us to July 4th as our target date, to bring life in America closer to normal and to celebrate our independence from the virus”.
Since the pandemic began, Americans have been misled about wearing masks when senior health officials said people didn’t need them – also because of the severe lack of protective equipment for frontline health workers. Masks became the centerpiece of the culture wars that surrounded the pandemic, especially after President Donald J. Trump insisted they were voluntary and he wouldn’t wear one.
This led states to introduce patchwork mask restrictions, often by party-political standards, even though a mask has been proven to protect individuals and their surroundings. Many states have already lifted the restrictions they put on indoor and outdoor activities. Others upheld the requirements for wearing masks for outdoor areas and pointed out the danger of potentially more contagious variants.
April 27, 2021, 8:03 p.m. ET
The guidelines issued on Tuesday reflect some basic coronavirus calculations: as the number of people vaccinated increases, the number of cases decreases.
To date, about 43 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 29 percent have received both doses of the two vaccines that require double shots. According to a New York Times database, the United States has an average of 55,000 new cases per day, a decrease of around 20 percent from two weeks ago.
“I know the quarantine and shutdowns were stressful during the pandemic,” said Dr. Walensky. “I know we all miss the things we did before the pandemic, and I know we all want to do the things we love, and soon. Today is another day where we can take a step back to normal. “
Her remarks and those of the president have even been welcomed by some of the Biden administration’s fiercest Republican critics in Congress, many of whom have complained that the coronavirus restrictions are an encroachment on their personal freedoms.
“The time has come,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, recently named Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease specialist, angry at a hearing on Capitol Hill. “When do we get the rest of our freedoms back?”
Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who promoted marginal theories and gave vaccine skeptics a platform, said the guidelines were “long overdue.”
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas who stopped wearing masks indoors after being vaccinated, said he was “glad the CDC finally recognized what has long been apparent, namely that wearing a mask outside is stupid and not science is remotely justified. “
In fact, the science behind the CDC’s new guidelines is not comprehensive. A growing body of research shows that the likelihood of the virus spreading outdoors is far less than indoors, but the risk is not zero and difficult to quantify.
Most, if not all, of the outdoor virus transmission studies were done before the vaccine was available. Therefore, no distinction is made between the risk to vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
However, experts say that virus particles disperse quickly outdoors, meaning that brief encounters with a passing walker or jogger pose a very low risk of transmission.
“The two most important things you need to do outdoors are that the virus dilutes quickly” and breaks down quickly in sunlight, “said Linsey Marr, aerosol expert at Virginia Tech.People are really cheek to cheek, side by side and in front and one after the other, and there is screaming, cheering – I would wear a mask in this situation. “
Even so, the evidence is a bit thin. A recent systematic review of studies examining the transmission of the novel coronavirus and other respiratory viruses in unvaccinated individuals found only five studies on the coronavirus that met the authors’ criteria.
The study concluded that less than 10 percent of infections occurred outdoors and that the likelihood of transmission indoors was 18.7 times as high as outdoors (the likelihood of super-spreading events was 33 times as much high as indoors).
One of the authors of the paper, Dr. Nooshin Razani, associate professor of epidemiology, biostatistics, and pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco, warned that the low probability of transmission outdoors may simply reflect the fact that people spend little time outdoors.
In a documented case in Italy, the virus spread between joggers who ran together outdoors.
The CDC’s new guidelines came out in a growing debate about why the federal government still recommends that people wear masks outdoors. Dr. Paul Sax, an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine last week that it was time to end outdoor mask mandates.
Along with the guidelines, the CDC released a color-coded table of masking recommendations for a variety of scenarios such as “dine in an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households,” “go to a hairdresser or hair salon,” and “go to an uncrowded mall or museum. “
But dr. Marr said it was too complex: “I’d have to carry around a piece of paper – a cheat sheet with all these different provisions.” She added, “I am concerned that this is not being as helpful as it could be.”
And there are other scenarios that the guidelines don’t address where wearing a mask outdoors can still send an important social signal. For example, Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, an epidemiologist at Northwestern University, notes that no vaccine has yet been approved for children under 16 years of age.
“When we ask children to wear masks in school and in the playground when they are in school,” she said, “I think it is up to the adults in the situation to model this behavior and to normalize the mask to wear outside too. “
Emily Anthes and Nicholas Fandos contributed to the coverage.