FORT WORTH, Texas — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks in nearly every instance inside or outside.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the decision follows new studies and information providing increasingly clear evidence vaccines are effective against spreading the virus to others, stopping new variants of the virus and preventing serious illness.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Walensky said.
Fully vaccinated means two weeks after the second shot of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two weeks after receiving the Johnson & Johnson shot.
The CDC guidance says that means there’s no need for masks inside or outside regardless of crowd size, so activities including eating inside, attending large events and working out at a gym are all OK to do without a mask now for those who are fully vaccinated.
“COVID-19 vaccines work,” Walensky said “You can shed your mask.”
Those who are vaccinated are safe around those who aren’t, but in reviewing the change, Walensky made clear that those who aren’t vaccinated should still wear masks.
“You remain at risk of mild or severe illness of death, or of spreading the disease to others,” she said. “You should still mask and you should get vaccinated right away.”
Masks are also still required on transit like trains, buses and planes for everyone, but the CDC said that could change soon.
“I want to be clear that we followed the science here,” Walensky said. “While this may serve as incentive for some people to get vaccinated, but that is not the purpose.”
What businesses, employees and customers should know
Businesses also have the ability to create and enforce their own rules.
“They have the freedom to implement the policies that they think are best for their constituency and their employees,” said Rogge Dunn, an employment and labor attorney.
Dunn is a partner at Rogge Dunn group and has been advising businesses how to handle ever-changing guidance.
“Not a day goes by that a company doesn't call me and say, 'What about this scenario?' involving COVID,” Dunn said.
He says opinions are mixed over whether employers can require vaccination before they receive FDA approval, though he believes they likely can. If an employer wants to create a rule following the CDC guidance, it can ask employees if they’ve been vaccinated.
“The law is quite clear, and the EEOC has also said that employers can ask employees if they've been vaccinated,” he said. “The caution is employers should not go further and say, ‘Well, why haven't you been vaccinated?’ Because that might lead to protected medical information.”
Some companies may keep mask rules because while it’s tough to prove where someone was infected, businesses want to avoid suits. Southwest Airlines is currently being sued by the spouse of a flight attendant who died of COVID-19.
“If you let your guard down and a customer comes in and get sick and you didn't require all employees to be vaccinated, then you face potential liability,” Dunn said.
Instead of forcing vaccinations, some companies are offering incentives ranging from paid time off to bonuses.
“Employers and employees need to educate themselves,” Dunn said. “Think about what policies they want to implement and do so thoughtfully, hopefully in a collaborative process.”
The new guidance is because of how well vaccines stop the spread, variants and serious illness, and while the risk is low, it isn’t zero, so be kind to those who still wear them.
“People have to make their own personal choice,” said Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci. “There are those people who don't want to take that bit of a risk, and there's nothing wrong with that, and they shouldn't be criticized.”
The CDC guidance says anyone with symptoms should go back to wearing a mask and healthcare settings should also continue to follow separate guidance.