US public health officials said that fully vaccinated people can go outside without face coverings in many settings, taking a significant step towards loosening social-distancing guidelines as more Americans are inoculated against Covid-19.

Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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.

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.

29% the portion of the US population that is now fully vaccinated against Covid-19

That guidance will 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. Texas governor Greg Abbott 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. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has asked residents to keep wearing face coverings until at least June, but has hinted that may become less stringent over summer.

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.

The figures indicate that demand for Covid-19 shots has slowed, however. The US has reported 2.74m new doses administered a day over the past week, the lowest level since March 28. The seven-day average peaked at 3.38m on April 16.

Walensky said she hoped the new mask guidelines would encourage people to get vaccinated. Earlier this month she described a feeling of “impending doom” as case rates across the US, and certain states including Michigan, were starting to rise again.

The CDC director said on Tuesday 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 country has averaged about 54,400 new 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 in the US.

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