On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks inside and outside.
"Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,'' Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC's director said. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic."
The news signals a massive turning point in the pandemic, during which indoor and outdoor mask-wearing rules have become normal in most states. While the CDC has some stipulations (masks are still required in healthcare settings), the announcement marks over one year since federal health officials told Americans to cover their faces in public.
Yet there are nuances to the CDC's guidelines — nuances which have resulted in different interpretations across the nation. Notably, the CDC's new guidance isn't a no-mask mandate, but rather a recommendation that somewhat shifts mask-wearing guidelines to local governments and the private sector.
Hours after the announcement, state and county governments reacted in a variety of ways. Demcoratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said that he will revise executive orders to match the CDC's new guidelines.
"I firmly believe in following the science, and will revise my executive orders in line with CDC guidelines lifting additional mitigations for vaccinated people," Pritzker said. "The scientists' message is clear: if you are vaccinated, you can safely do much more."
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Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the state will "immediately follow" the new rules, too.
"This is outstanding," Beshear said. "It means that we are so close to normalcy, and we're going to be changing Kentucky's mask mandate to be the same with those CDC guidelines."
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that anyone fully vaccinated in Michigan will no longer need to wear a mask while indoors. People who are not fully vaccinated are required to keep wearing masks indoors. Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Pennsylvania also moved to make changes to their mask mandates to be more aligned with the CDC's new guidelines.
At the moment, mask mandates appear to not be over for the fully vaccinated in states like California, New York, and North Carolina, as governors of these states and local jurisdictions are still considering what to do.
In many municipalities, the announcement has caused confusion on how to proceed, as some leaders aren't convinced that people who aren't fully vaccinated will still wear masks and social distance. For example, Quinton Lucas, who's the democratic mayor of Kansas City. Missouri, first said the mask order wouldn't change, then said he would think about it, and then finally said he'd lift the mask mandate altogether because it's too difficult to decipher who's been vaccinated and who hasn't.
"While I understand the CDC's theory that they could just create a rule that says vaccinated folks go anywhere without a mask, and everybody else who's unvaccinated will follow it, I don't know if that's the type of rule that was written in coordination with anyone who has been a governor or a mayor over the last 14 months," Lucas said, via The New York Times.
Indeed, Lucas's concerns reflect the heart of the debate among Americans: can an honor system really work? And are private businesses willing to implement measures to check the vaccination status of their customers?
On Friday, Trader Joe's updated it's COVID-19 page, saying the company will "encourage customers to follow the guidance of health officials, including, as appropriate, CDC guidelines that advise customers who are fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks while shopping." However, Target, Home Depot, CVS and Harris Teeter are among the chains that said they will continue to require masks inside their stores.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million essential food and retail workers, raised concerns about the new CDC guidance, calling it "confusing."
"While we all share the desire to return to a mask-free normal, today's CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks," UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. "Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures; are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?"
The guidance is also causing confusion among many parents, as the Washington Post reports, as very few children have been vaccinated. Vaccinated parents bringing unvaccinated children to public indoor places might create a stew of complicated rule-sorting regarding masks.
"Until younger children are eligible to be vaccinated for the COVID-19 vaccine, they should continue to wear face masks when they are in public and around other people," said Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases. "We've already seen how the masks have helped prevent the spread of respiratory infections within schools, camps and other community settings, particularly when everyone wears them, washes hands and follows other infection control guidance."
Mass vaccination of children will soon begin in the U.S. This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children between 12 and 15 years of age. Children under the age of 12 are expected to be eligible for emergency use of the vaccine by fall 2021.