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Washington showing signs of normalcy after year of restrictions

Washington showing signs of normalcy after year of restrictions
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The nation’s capital is inching back toward normalcy after more than a year of stringent coronavirus restrictions, with signs of pre-pandemic habits starting to pop up as more Americans get vaccinated.

Many reporters, top officials and staffers at the White House went without masks on Thursday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said vaccinated individuals were safe to shed face coverings in most indoor and outdoor settings.

Lawmakers, congressional aides and other staffers on Capitol Hill who have been fully vaccinated are now allowed to go maskless in House office buildings and other spaces around the Capitol, though a mask mandate for the House floor will remain in place for now, according to a memo sent by the U.S. Capitol physician on Thursday.

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Still, the overall loosening of restrictions is a sign that the pandemic is starting to move into the rearview mirror.

Currently, 55 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine.

Washington, D.C., is lifting capacity restrictions on restaurants, stores, places of worship, gyms and other venues on Friday. Limits on sporting venues, bars and nightclubs will fade away starting June 11. The city is in the process of reviewing the new CDC guidance to determine when and how to update its mask rules, while neighboring states Virginia and Maryland announced plans to lift mask mandates on Friday.

Many businesses may keep mask mandates in place given that a decent chunk of the U.S. population hasn’t been fully vaccinated. Trader Joe’s on Friday became one of the first national chains to drop its mask requirement for fully vaccinated customers.

That same day, the White House press briefing had a different look. It was the first time in more than a year that reporters were able to ask questions while showing their full faces.

The White House Correspondents' Association advised reporters following the CDC announcement on Thursday that those who are vaccinated no longer have to wear masks inside the complex. The organization told members on Friday that it expects to release “significant adjustments” in the coming days that will bring working life at the White House closer to normal.

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Changes are on the way in other parts of Washington, particularly at monuments, museums and other federal buildings.

Museums around the nation’s capital started to reopen on Friday but with some restrictions to limit crowds and maintain social distancing. First lady Jill BidenJill BidenBiden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president Overnight Health Care: FDA says millions of J&J doses from troubled plant must be thrown out | WHO warns Africa falling far behind in vaccinations | Top CDC official says US not ready for next pandemic The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Sights and sounds from Biden's UK visit MORE marked the occasion with a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The first lady removed her mask as she entered the building and when she addressed staff. She put it back on to take a tour of some of the museum’s exhibits.

"It feels so special to me, and it does feel hopeful,” she said of the return to museums. “Inch by inch, we’re moving forward, and we’ve got to just get this pandemic under control.”

There was a bipartisan sense of relief across Washington with the announcement of the new guidance for masks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process on Wednesday | Four states emerge as test case for cutting off jobless benefits GOP senator: I want to make Biden a 'one-half-term president' McConnell presses for 'actual consequences' in disclosure of tax data MORE (R-Ky.) said he was “free at last” as he walked out of the chamber on Thursday. 

White House coronavirus response adviser Andy Slavitt changed his Twitter picture from one of him wearing a mask to one of him not wearing a mask. Peter Velz, an aide to Vice President Harris, celebrated in a tweet that his boss saw his smile “unobscured” for the first time.

President BidenJoe BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics MORE on Friday made a surprise appearance outside the West Wing while posing for a photo with a staff member and told reporters he was enjoying his first day without a mask.

Masks among White House staffers were less common in the Trump administration, which seldom required face coverings even after then-President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE and others fell ill amid an outbreak at the White House. Biden officials, by contrast, have been strict in adhering to public health guidance.

The CDC’s updated recommendations set off a fresh debate among public health experts. Some felt it was a positive step toward normalcy and an incentive to get vaccinated, while others expressed surprise the agency would be so quick to relax recommendations after weeks of being criticized for being overly cautious.

One former Health and Human Services official noted the CDC still had not weighed in on key aspects of mask guidance that could lead to confusion moving forward. For example, it was not immediately clear if parents should continue masking around their kids who cannot yet get vaccinated.

The guidance also clashes with the Biden administration’s orders issued earlier in the year mandating masks on public transportation and on federal grounds.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiLawmakers urge Biden to be tough on cybersecurity during summit with Putin Fox's John Roberts says for media, no Biden-Putin presser is a loss Harris highlights COVID-19 vaccination safety, efficacy in SC event to kick off tour MORE indicated the White House was reviewing the new CDC guidelines and could issue an update to those orders in the coming days.

“It may take a couple of days. But certainly I would expect on federal lands, federal properties that the guidelines will be the guide,” she said.

Administration officials have more broadly preached patience as the public adapts to a maskless world. The president on Thursday urged Americans to treat others with kindness if they choose to keep wearing masks, noting it will remain a personal choice.

CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyStudy: Older Americans saw larger declines in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths after vaccine became available Overnight Health Care: Biden 'very confident' in Fauci amid conservative attacks | House Dems press Biden on global vaccinations | CDC director urges parents to vaccinate adolescents New York plans to loosen school mask rules as soon as Monday MORE on Friday conceded it may be difficult for some to fully stop wearing a mask after doing so for the last 15 months.

“We should be able to do that in our own due time,” she said.

Psaki told reporters Friday that the White House is working through plans for how many staff members to bring back to working in person and when after almost four months during which many officials have worked remotely.

“Just like companies and businesses are digesting this, so are we,” Psaki said. “We are eager to get back to a version of normal, but we need a little bit of time to implement it and also to review additional steps.”