WASHINGTON (AP) — In a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people on Thursday, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.
“Today is a great day for America,” President Joe Biden said during a Rose Garden address heralding the new guidance, an event where he and his staff went without masks. Hours earlier in the Oval Office, where Biden was meeting with vaccinated Republican lawmakers, he led the group in removing their masks when the guidance was announced.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” he said, summarizing the new guidance and encouraging more Americans to roll up their sleeves. “Get vaccinated — or wear a mask until you do.”
The guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but it will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues — even removing the need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
The CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot. The country’s aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.
The new guidance is likely to open the door to confusion, since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.
Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve gotten this far — please protect yourself until you get to the finish line,” Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 are not yet fully vaccinated. He said the government was not going to enforce the mask-wearing guidance on those not yet fully vaccinated.
“We’re not going to go out and arrest people,” added Biden, who said he believes the American people want to take care of their neighbors. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the protection of the people who also have not been vaccinated yet.”
The announcement came as many states and communities have already been lifting mask mandates amid improving virus numbers and as more Americans have been shedding face coverings after getting shots.
Earlier this month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that he would be lifting all COVID-19 safety restrictions. Several local leaders expressed disapproval of the governor’s order. Residents of South Florida also said that they did not agree with the lifting of restrictions.
To date, more than 154 million Americans, nearly 47% of the population, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 119 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the CDC authorization of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.
“All of us, let’s be patient, be patient with one another,” Biden said, acknowledging some Americans might be hesitant about removing their masks after more than a year of living in a pandemic that has killed more than 584,000 people in the U.S. and more than 3.3 million people worldwide.
AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard and AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.