President Joe Biden described the guidelines as a “milestone” during a Thursday afternoon speech in the White House Rose Garden, crediting the American people for adhering to public health measures for more than a year.
“If you’ve been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” Biden said. “But if you have not been vaccinated … you still need to wear a mask. We’ve gotten this far. Please protect yourself until you get to the finish line. We don’t want to let up.”
Covid-19 infection rates are decreasing nationally and hospitalizations are at their lowest level since April 2020. That has allowed the U.S. to finally begin moving toward a sense of normalcy, Biden said, while urging Americans who have not been vaccinated to sign up for shots.
The announcement by the CDC Thursday marked a massive shift in the Biden administration’s thinking about Covid-19. Six weeks ago, senior health officials warned of rising Covid-19 infection rates and pleaded with all Americans to continue to adhere to the strictest of public health measures. Walensky went as far as saying she was “scared” about the rising case counts.
Now, the masks can begin to come off for fully vaccinated individuals. People are are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, or two weeks after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
CDC last month released guidelines that said fully vaccinated people could walk, run, bike, dine and gather outdoors without masks with members of their household and other vaccinated family and friends. But that advice stressed that larger indoor gatherings were riskier, even for a fully inoculated group. The CDC had also said vaccinated people could gather in small groups outdoors without masks even if the group includes unvaccinated individuals.
The guidelines announced Thursday go a step further, saying fully vaccinated individuals can now remove their masks in all group settings and that they do not need to social distance from other people. The CDC says Americans should still wear masks in public places — like grocery stores, airplanes or hospitals — and should adhere to all local and federal mask mandates. And, the CDC said unvaccinated people should still take precautions while gathering with those who are immunocompromised.
“If you are not fully vaccinated, you are not fully protected and so you need to be continuing to wear your mask and practicing all of the mitigation strategies that we’ve been discussing before,” Walensky said.
The news comes as Covid-19 infection rates are falling across the country. But the pace of vaccination is also falling, and senior officials inside the Biden administration have for weeks debated about publishing guidelines that recommend Americans roll back their mask use at a time when the Covid-19 situation in the country is still uncertain.
Some administration officials have argued that the U.S. is not yet at a place where it should relax public health guidelines, particularly because of the emergence of new, highly transmissible Covid-19 variants, two individuals with knowledge of those conversations said. Other officials, though, have said that despite falling vaccination numbers, the U.S. has vaccinated enough American adults that it can begin to issue guidelines that allow those individuals to ease toward normalcy.
The announcement by the CDC Thursday points to a growing consensus inside the Biden administration that it is safe for the U.S. to begin to relax. Shortly after the new CDC mask policy became public, the White House announced that staff and visitors who are fully vaccinated no longer have to wear face coverings within the White House complex.
The CDC stressed Wednesday, though, that the guidelines do not apply to health care or congregate settings.
Fully vaccinated international travelers arriving in the U.S. are still required to get tested within 3 days of their flight, or show documentation of recovery from Covid-19 in the past 3 months, and should still get tested 3-5 days after their trip, the CDC said.