Unvaccinated Americans have one more good reason to book an appointment to receive the coronavirus vaccine, President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday: the ability to go outside and hang out with friends without wearing a facial covering.
“Because of the extraordinary progress we’ve made in fighting this virus,” Biden said in remarks from the White House, “starting today, if you’re fully vaccinated and you’re outdoors, and not in a big crowd, you no longer need to wear a mask.”
“Gathering with a group of friends in a park, going for a picnic, as long as you are vaccinated and outdoors, you can do it without a mask.”
Biden stopped short of declaring that fully vaccinated people could go maskless in all outdoor settings, instead hedging that Americans can take off their masks when walking, running, or biking alone or with members of their families, or within small gatherings outside with unvaccinated people.
“This is another great reason to go get vaccinated now—now,” Biden said. “Yes, vaccines are about saving your life, but also the lives of the people around you. And they’re also about allowing us to get back closer to normal.”
“We’re back to that place now, as long as you get vaccinated,” Biden continued.
But the CDC guidelines may still pose a risk of confusion—including in Biden’s own remarks. The president told reporters that the guidelines were not extended to unvaccinated people, while the CDC guidelines released before his remarks showed the unvaccinated people could go outside for walks or in groups with vaccinated people without needing to wear a mask.
Asked why the guidelines did not apply to everybody—despite the CDC graphic indicating that they largely do—Biden responded, “Because the science indicates that the most certain way to make sure it doesn’t spread [is if] both people have been vaccinated, the people you’re with, and you’re outside.”
The new guidelines, for example, also say that it is safe for unvaccinated people to go outside without donning a mask, and to attend gatherings with vaccinated people without wearing one. The CDC guidance also encourages fully vaccinated people to remain six feet apart in larger outdoor venues like concerts or sporting events, and to avoid crowds or spaces with poor ventilation. Fully vaccinated people are still encouraged to wear face masks in those settings but can go mask-free in, to use the CDC’s example, an outdoor restaurant while eating with people from multiple households.
Biden himself, meanwhile, walked by himself to the lectern on the White House lawn while still wearing a mask.
“For vaccinated people, outdoor activities without a mask are safe,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters in a briefing ahead of Biden’s remarks. “However, we continue to recommend masking in crowded outdoor settings and venues such as packed stadiums and concerts where there is decreased ability to maintain physical distance and where many unvaccinated people may also be present. We will continue to recommend this until widespread vaccination is achieved.”
The updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes as more than half of all adults in the country have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and as the public health consensus has found that the potential spread of COVID-19 through fleeting outdoor proximity is negligible.
“There’s really very limited evidence to suggest that outdoor transmission plays any significant role in SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” Dr. Tim Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast. Brewer noted that a “study of studies” regarding outdoor transmission found that “it probably plays a very limited role,” if any role at all.
The White House’s coronavirus task force had come under increasing pressure to update the outdoor mask guidance, which the CDC issued at the beginning of Biden’s presidency with the accompanying request from the president to “mask up for the first 100 days” of his administration.
“By wearing a mask from now until April, we save 50,000 lives,” Biden said in January, “so I’m asking every American to mask up.”
As the nation’s vaccination rate has slowed down, however—due, in part, to vaccine hesitancy in more politically conservative communities—Biden’s administration has used the promise of returning to some semblance of normality by the summer to convince Americans to continue getting the vaccine.
“If we all do our part, there’s a good chance that families, friends, and neighbors will be able to gather in small groups to celebrate Independence Day on July 4,” one senior official told reporters in March. “We know people in this country are eager to get back to family and friends—the next phase where wartime effort will help get us closer to normal.”
Whether the new outdoor rules will indeed encourage unvaccinated Americans to get their dose, or whether it will instead give them free rein to ditch masks entirely as the weather warms, is more of a “social science” question than a “science-science” question.
“I appreciate that everybody’s getting tired of this pandemic—we’ve been in it for over a year, we’re ready to move on with our lives,” Brewer said. “We’re 75 percent lower than where we were at the beginning of January, but things have kind of leveled off, and I think the task force is kind of grappling with what to do about that.”