Over the course of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak, masks were a political symbol as much as a precaution against catching or spreading the coronavirus. For instance, some die-hard conservatives framed the face coverings as evidence of people’s lack of critical thinking and willful ignorance to follow American politicians’ directions, while liberals promoted masks as part of all-for-one effort to try to end the pandemic.
So, in mid-May 2021, when the country’s top public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC), announced new recommendations for when certain people can forgo masks, questions over federal leaders’ new “mask stance” dominated social media. Numerous posts interpreted the development as the CDC’s blessing for fully vaccinated people to go anywhere — indoors or outdoors — without covering their noses or mouths, under U.S. President Joe Biden.
Without more context, however, that interpretation of the health agency’s guidelines is misleading. Below, we explain the specifics of the CDC’s mask recommendations for fully vaccinated people — which the agency released on May 13 and includes several exceptions — as well as what they mean for people on a community-to-community basis.
Firstly, epidemiologists consider people “fully vaccinated” two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose series of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or two weeks after their single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. In other words, if someone received their first vaccine in early April and their second shot on April 29, doctors would consider them fully inoculated on May 13.
That said, it was true the CDC announced for the first time in months that a group of people — fully vaccinated Americans — were protected from catching COVID-19 without wearing masks in certain scenarios. Before that, the public health agency encouraged everyone to wear facial coverings indoors (except at home) and outside in large crowds to avoid spreading the coronavirus, regardless of their vaccination status.
On May, 13, the CDC said in a statement:
If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.
Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
In other words, it was dangerously misleading to frame the new guidance as the public health agency’s sudden decision that masks were not needed in any situation, or that they were no longer effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Rather, the CDC website included the following exceptions to the looser mask guidelines:
- Health care facilities. Anyone at hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities should still cover their faces, according to the CDC. That includes patients seeking help for any type of medical issue, residents of nursing homes, and all employees. (Here’s the CDC’s full recommendations to prevent COVID-19 cases in health care settings.)
- Planes and other forms of transportation. The CDC’s website stated: “You will still be required to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States, and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations.”
- Correctional facilities and homeless shelters. Everyone at prisons, jails, and temporary housing shelters should also still cover their mouths and noses, per the CDC.
- Businesses that require them. Even as state and federal officials change their mask policies, companies nationwide can still legally require customers workers to wear the facial coverings. For example, several major chains — including CVS, Home Depot, Macy’s and supermarket giant Kroger Co. — were still requiring masks, The Associated Press (AP) reported. (As of this writing, The New York Times was keeping a running tab of major businesses’ reactions to the CDC’s announcement here.)
Moreover, as NPR reported, all unvaccinated people, especially children and people who expect to be among others who are at risk (such as seniors or immunocompromised people), need to continue wearing masks:
The CDC says all unvaccinated people age 2 and older “should wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household. Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend unvaccinated children 2 and older continue to wear masks around others when indoors, especially when they are among at-risk adults such as those who are immunocompromised or over 65.”
Also, let this be clear: The CDC’s guidelines do not override local and state mandates on masks. Half of states had mask requirements in place for most indoor spaces on May 13, and just a portion of them loosened those restrictions as a result of the CDC’s announcement, according to the AP. That news outlet reported:
Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Ohio, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Kentucky, Washington, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, Kansas, Colorado and Rhode Island announced plans to fall in line with the CDC guidance either immediately or in the coming weeks. Some cities, including New Orleans and Anchorage, did the same. […]
Other states, such as California, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Hawaii and Massachusetts, and cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul kept mask rules in place for the time being.
In sum, despite the revised guidelines, before fully-vaccinated people consider going somewhere without a mask, they should check the website or social media accounts of the businesses or venues to which they’re heading, as stated in the CDC’s guidelines. Additionally, they should consider resources from their city, county, and state public health departments, since they are designed to consider COVID-19 transmission rates at a granular, local level.
For those reasons, we rate this claim a “Mixture” of true and false information. Yes, the CDC said fully vaccinated people can “resume activities” without covering their faces in certain situations — so long as they aren’t living in a region where a local government says differently, or they aren’t working for or visiting the above-listed places.
Author: Jessica Lee
This post originally appeared on Snopes.com