CDC says it is safe for vaccinated people to unmask outdoors

New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it is safe for people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to be outside without a mask, but only in small groups.

The guidance, which CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyOvernight Health Care — Presented by Indivior — Walensky gives green light for boosters Biden urges all eligible Americans to get a booster shot CDC director partially overrules panel, signs off on boosters MORE outlined during a White House press conference Tuesday, builds on previous updates from the agency about the activities people can feel comfortable with once fully vaccinated.

"Today is another day we can take a step back to the normalcy of before. Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what they cannot do, what they should not do,” Walensky said. “Today, I’m going to tell you some of the things you can do if you are fully vaccinated.”

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The guidance includes a color-coded chart that describes activities for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people indoors and outdoors, both with and without masks.

According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks during small, outdoor gatherings even if there's a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Dining at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households is also considered a safe activity for vaccinated people to do without a mask, the agency said. 

"The release of these new guidelines is a first step at helping fully vaccinated Americans resume what they had stopped doing because of the pandemic, at low risk to themselves, while being mindful of the potential risk of transmitting the virus to others," the CDC said.

Last month, the CDC said it was safe for fully vaccinated people to safely gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without wearing masks, and could visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household.

People are considered fully vaccinated by the CDC two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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More than 42 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one vaccine dose, including nearly 30 percent who have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. 

CDC emphasized that it's ultimately up to individuals to consider their own personal situation and the risk to themselves, their family and community before venturing out without a mask.

Even vaccinated people should wear a mask when outdoors in a crowded public space, indoors in public spaces like a mall, houses of worship, or even a small indoor gathering with a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. 

Studies have consistently found the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is significantly reduced when outdoors, particularly when individuals are socially distanced. Experts have increasingly questioned the need for mask use outdoors given the rising percentage of Americans who are vaccinated against the virus.

As vaccination levels have increased and infections dropped, there's been a growing chorus of public experts calling for CDC to update its guidance on outdoor activities. But there are likely some who think this does not go far enough. 

For example, the guidelines for unvaccinated people have not changed. The agency still recommends wearing a mask when outside in public spaces.

"Masks may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others, or with people who live in your household," the current guidance states. 

"However, some areas may have mask mandates while out in public, so please check the rules in your local area (such as in your city, county, or state)," it adds.

Many states instituted strict universal mask mandates for indoors and outdoors, even if you're alone. Some are beginning to lift them, and Walensky encouraged governors to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, as well as between small outdoor gatherings and large ones, like concerts or sporting events, where many unvaccinated people may also be present.

But there's widespread consensus that brief encounters with an unmasked person running, hiking or biking are very low risk. 

"I think we have to say, no need for blanket outdoor mask mandates," Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said in an e-mail.

She noted that the World Health Organization says masks are not necessary outside unless physical distancing of three feet can't be maintained.

"If you are vaccinated, it's fine to take off your mask any time outdoors, even if you are around others," Wen said. "If you are unvaccinated, you should keep three feet away from others who are also unvaccinated, or are of unknown vaccination status when outdoors; if you cannot maintain 3 feet distance, you should wear a mask." 

Updated at 1:26 p.m.