The new U.S. guidance on masks is ‘a ticket to freedom,’ but comes with questions.
Near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn in April. Federal guidance issued on this week clears the way for Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to drop mask wearing in most situations. Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times
New federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cleared the way for people in the United States who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to drop mask-wearing in most situations, still came with plenty of caveats and confusion for Americans on Friday. It sent state and local officials, as well as private companies, scrambling to decide whether and when to update their own rules.
There was plenty of cause for celebration, too, for many Americans weary of restrictions and traumatized by more than a year of a pandemic that has killed more than 583,000 people in the United States and more than 3.3 million around the world.
“We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said as she announced the shift at a White House news conference a day earlier. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
Fully vaccinated people are still told to cover their faces when flying or taking public transit, when visiting health care facilities, and in congregate settings such as homeless shelters, as well as prisons.
The recommendations came as a surprise to many people in public health. They offered a stark contrast with the views of a large majority of epidemiologists surveyed in the last two weeks by The New York Times, who said that until many more Americans were vaccinated, there would be too many chances for vaccines, which are not 100 percent effective, to fail.
“Unless the vaccination rates increase to 80 or 90 percent over the next few months, we should wear masks in large public indoor settings,” said Vivian Towe, a program officer at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, an independent nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
The new recommendations also caught state officials and businesses by surprise and raised a host of difficult questions about how the guidelines would be carried out. Some states lifted mask mandates immediately, while others took a more cautious approach.
Most of the state officials who responded immediately to the shift were Democrats, and they used the moment to stress the need to get vaccinated to take advantage of greater freedom. Half of the country’s governors — most of them Republicans — had already lifted mask mandates in some form.
The governors of New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia, and the mayors of New York City and Washington, D.C., all Democrats, said on Thursday that they were taking the new guidance under advisement before adopting it. Los Angeles County also said that it and the State of California were reviewing the new guidelines. In deference to local authorities, the C.D.C. said vaccinated people must continue to abide by existing state, local or tribal laws and regulations, and to follow local rules for businesses and workplaces.
After the new guidance was announced, at least seven states led by Democrats began to lift mask mandates: Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon and Pennsylvania. Others had yet to weigh in publicly.
See Reopening Plans and Mask Mandates for All 50 States
Much of the country appears on track to fully reopen in the coming weeks, even as mask mandates remain widely in place.
In Washington State, Gov. Jay Inslee, who usually wears a mask while speaking at his news conferences, began his gathering on Thursday by removing it. He said the state was immediately incorporating the new federal guidance.
“This is a heck of a benefit for people who have been annoyed by this mask,” Mr. Inslee said. “This is a really good reason to get vaccinated. That shot is a ticket to freedom from masks.”
Yet the C.D.C. guidance leaves a number of issues unaddressed. There was no specific language about masking in schools, for instance. And an even broader question remains unclear: Who knows who is justified in claiming the new freedoms?
“I think the challenge is that it’s impossible to determine who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated,” said Gov. David Ige of Hawaii, where a mask mandate will stay in place.
About 64 percent of Americans are not fully vaccinated. And vaccination rates have been falling, although the campaign to inoculate 12- to 15-year-olds has just begun. Ohio has created a weekly state lottery that would give five people $1 million each in return for being vaccinated. People who receive a vaccine are issued a white paper card, but online scammers have sold forged versions of those.
The guidance seemed to catch many retailers by surprise. Macy’s, Target and the Gap said they were still reviewing it, while Home Depot said it had no plans to change its rules requiring customers and workers to wear masks in its stores.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, representing thousands of grocery store workers, criticized the C.D.C. for failing to consider how the new policy would affect workers who have to deal with customers who are not vaccinated.
Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon emphasized that the state would not be operating on an honor system. She said that the health department would soon provide guidance for businesses, employers and others “to allow the option of lifting mask and physical distancing requirements after verifying vaccination status.”