Vaccinated people in the US can go outside without masks in many settings, the Biden administration has said, in a significant step to loosen social-distancing requirements as new cases decline and vaccinations increase.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its updated guidance on face coverings on Tuesday, under pressure from some public health experts to do more to entice people to get vaccinated.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said on Tuesday that “generally for vaccinated people, outdoor activities . . . are safe”.
Those who have received all their required Covid-19 jabs can attend small outdoor gatherings or dine outdoors with people from other households “safely, unmasked”, she said.
“Beginning today, a gathering of 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,” Joe Biden, the US president, said in remarks on Tuesday.
“So for those who haven’t gotten the vaccination yet, especially if you’re younger, or thinking you don’t need it, this is another great reason to go get vaccinated,” he added.
29% The portion of the US population fully vaccinated against Covid-19
Coronavirus infections in the US continue to fall to levels last seen six months ago. The country has averaged about 54,400 infections a day over the past week, according to the CDC, down from a peak rate of almost 250,000 reached in early January during the most severe wave of the pandemic. Nearly 573,000 Covid-19 deaths have been reported in the US, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
CDC data on Monday showed that 231m Covid-19 vaccine jabs have been distributed to Americans so far, equal to 42.5 per cent of the total population having received at least one dose. Almost 29 per cent of the country is fully vaccinated.
But the pace of vaccinations has slowed in the past two weeks from about 3.4m doses a day to 2.7m.
Many public health experts have urged the Biden administration to do more to encourage vaccinations, especially in younger people who are at lower risk from the disease. That includes relaxing the restrictions for people who have been fully vaccinated.
The CDC had previously recommended people wear masks whenever they were indoors or could not maintain a six-foot distance from another individual. Under the new guidance, masks will still be recommended in crowded outdoor settings, such as sports stadiums, where physical distancing may be harder to achieve and some people may not be vaccinated.
Walensky also said it was safe for fully vaccinated people to “return to activities inside”, such as attending religious services, dining indoors at restaurants and bars and participating in exercise classes — although they are still urged to wear masks.
Earlier this month the CDC director described a feeling of “impending doom” as case rates across the US, and certain states including Michigan, were starting to rise again. But on Tuesday she said she was more comfortable with the current situation, given new infections were stabilising and she could see “more vaccines getting into people’s arms”.
The guidance would probably remain in place “until widespread vaccination is achieved”, Walensky said. A person is fully vaccinated against Covid-19 two weeks after receiving their final jab, whether that is for two or single-dose regimens.
Some states have already begun winding back mask mandates. Greg Abbott, Texas governor, was among the first to take action in early March, while Connecticut is expected to lift its outdoor mask requirement at the start of May. Bill de Blasio, New York City mayor, has asked residents to keep wearing face coverings until at least June, but has hinted that may become less stringent over the summer.
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