Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 generally don’t need to cover their faces with masks anymore — regardless of whether they’re inside or outside, federal public health officials announced Thursday in the most significant relaxation of coronavirus precautions since the pandemic hit.
The new guidelines, rolled out by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], pave the way for businesses, schools, restaurants, live venues and other establishments to fully reopen their doors without any public health restrictions for the first time since February 2020 after one of the darkest years in US history.
President Joe Biden, whose administration is on track to meet its goal of partially vaccinating at least 70 per cent of American adults by July 4, strode into the White House Rose Garden without a mask after the CDC announcement, a broad smile on his lips.
“Today is a great day for America,” he said.
To the nation, he added, “You have earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: Greeting others with a smile.”
The updated CDC guidelines also scrap the need for social distancing, meaning fully vaccinated individuals can get back to what used to be considered normal facets of life, like attending crowded concerts and sports games, going to a bar, having dinner inside at a restaurant or participating in religious services — all without a mask on.
The only settings where fully vaccinated individuals should still wear face masks and practice social distancing are on public transportation services, like buses, trains and airplanes, as well as in hospitals, homeless shelters and prisons, according to the CDC.
Immunocompromised individuals should also consult with their doctors before ditching masks altogether, the CDC says.
Importantly, the CDC considers individuals to be fully vaccinated only once two weeks have passed since they received their final coronavirus shot.
For all others, the CDC still recommends face mask usage in all public settings where six feet [1.8 meters] of social distancing cannot be maintained, especially indoors.
There is so far no foolproof way for businesses and other establishments to ensure patrons are vaccinated, likely meaning the latest CDC guidelines could cause some confusion.
But Biden said he trusts the American people to do the right thing and continue abiding by public health guidelines until they’re fully immunized.
“We’re not going to go out and arrest people,” he said. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the protection of the people who also have not been vaccinated yet.”
Many states, including New York, still have mandates in place requiring face masks be worn in most public settings.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has complied with all past CDC directives, did not immediately alter New York’s mask mandate, but said his administration was “reviewing” the latest guidance late Thursday.
“In New York, we have always relied on the facts and the science to guide us throughout the worst of this pandemic and in our successful reopening,” he said.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, said her agency recommended the major mask rollback because the US vaccination campaign has sent COVID-19 infection and death rates tumbling to their lowest levels since last spring.
“You can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Walensky said on a conference call with reporters. “We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
The Biden administration first eased mask recommendations last month, allowing fully vaccinated individuals to ditch face coverings in most outdoor settings.
Since then, the administration has faced pressure to further ease mask restrictions on fully vaccinated people, with public health experts arguing it could highlight the benefits of getting the shot.
Because while the country’s on course to beat back the pandemic, the clip of inoculations has slowed down significantly in the past few weeks amid hesitancy to get immunized among certain demographics, including registered Republicans.
Biden took the opportunity to use the CDC announcement as a pitch for the vaccine weary.
“The rule is very simple: Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do,” he said. “The choice is yours.”
As of Thursday, nearly 59 per cent of the adult population had received at least one shot and the Covid-19 death rate was at its lowest point since April 2020.
If the current pace of vaccinations continues, the US will have administered at least one shot to 70 per cent of adults by July 4, as promised by Biden, who says this Independence Day should mark the country’s “independence from the virus.”
The upbeat mask news aside, dozens of Americans are still dying from COVID-19 every day.
Biden noted that the US death toll on Thursday stood at 580,073, still the worst in the world, and noted that the country’s not completely out of the woods yet.
“Please protect yourself until you get to the finish line,” he said. “We all know how tough this virus has been. The safest thing for the country is for everyone to get vaccinated.”