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Five takeaways from new CDC guidance on going maskless
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) announcement Thursday that vaccinated people can go without masks in most settings is likely to accelerate a return to normalcy in the U.S.
But the new guidelines caught most Americans off guard, and prompted questions and some notes of caution before returning to pre-pandemic habits.
Here are five takeaways from the announcement:
COVID-19 crisis phase shows signs of ending
Masks, at least in many areas of the U.S., were a constant sign of the pandemic's presence, from walking down the street to going to the grocery store.
"Masks have been one of the most visible reminders of the threat of the pandemic," said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Now, with the CDC's guidance that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings, "It can be, I'm sure, shocking at first for many people, but it's also a reminder that, yes, we will come out on the other side of this," Michaud said.
Experts generally expect the virus will not be totally eliminated anytime soon, in part because some people can't or won't get vaccinated. Instead, it could fade into the background as a manageable risk, not something that dominates daily life.
Some experts applauded the CDC's announcement, while others said they thought it came a bit too soon, given that case rates will be lower in a few weeks as more people get shots.
"At some point we are going to have to move past coronavirus and start living normally again," former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC, noting how effective the vaccines are.
On the other hand, Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, said the guidance could have been somewhat more measured.
"I would not have thought they would take away the indoor mask requirement quite this soon and not have it somehow linked to the prevalence [of the virus] in your community," he said.
Decisions shift to businesses
The country will not be immediately free from all mask requirements, though, even for vaccinated people. The CDC's announcement puts a new burden on each business to decide whether they want to require masks, and some states still have requirements in place.
That could lead to neighboring stores having different policies. Trader Joe's, for example, said Friday that customers who are fully vaccinated did not need to wear masks while shopping. Target and Home Depot, on the other hand, said they are still requiring masks for now.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents many major retailers, lamented that the CDC guidance in some cases conflicts with state rules, putting "retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations" and creating "ambiguity."
The United Food and Commercial Workers union warned of the impact on front-line workers "who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks."
Vaccine passport debate could reignite
One way for some businesses to try to navigate the new CDC guidelines is to require customers to show proof of vaccination, or a "vaccine passport." A theater, for example, could seek to assuage the fears of audience members by saying everyone at a show must verify they are vaccinated.
But doing so carries risks. The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that the federal government is not going to be issuing vaccine passports. That means varying efforts across the country could create confusion.
"There's going to be a patchwork of different approaches," Michaud said.
New York State had already taken steps to create a verification stored on a smartphone or printed out, and other states could follow.
Some Republican governors, however, have taken steps against vaccine passports. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a law prohibiting private businesses from using them.
"I believe businesses should be strongly considering vaccine authentication, vaccine passports," Wachter said, though he acknowledged it's "a hard decision politically, a hard decision operationally."
Uncertainty for children under 12
While the CDC says fully vaccinated people do not need masks, other than in a few settings such as public transportation, there is one group that currently does not even have the option of getting vaccinated: children. Vaccines are not yet authorized for anyone under 12.
That has led to an odd situation where many adults, including parents, could be unmasked, while children, even though they are at lower-risk of serious illness from COVID-19, would still be recommended to wear masks.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has called on the CDC to update its guidance affecting children following Thursday's mask announcement, including changing summer camp guidance that has been controversial for requiring children to wear masks even when they're outdoors.
"I do think it's a glaring gap in the guidance," Michaud said of how to handle precautions for young children.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a press briefing Thursday that the agency would be working to update its guidance on schools and camps, but did not provide specifics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says children should keep wearing 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 group's Committee on Infectious Diseases.
Some people may choose to still be cautious
The CDC guidance says people can stop wearing masks if they are fully vaccinated, but it doesn't say they have to go maskless.
Different people will have different risk tolerances. Others have compromised immune systems that make them more vulnerable.
For vaccinated people, "the risk is low; it's not zero, and so individuals are going to have to make choices," Wachter said.
"Going into a crowded bar with poor ventilation is not that important to me," he said, noting that the risk calculation will also change as case rates decline further across the country.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted that he might continue to wear a mask on flights and subways during cold and flu season.
On the other end of the spectrum, some Americans have not been wearing a mask the whole time.
"Also if you want to keep wearing a mask, that's cool too," tweeted White House director of digital strategy Rob Flaherty. "Do what's comfortable!"