WASHINGTON - The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday said fully vaccinated Americans do not need to wear masks outdoors anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers — and those who are unvaccinated can go without a face covering outside in some cases, too.
President Joe Biden, speaking from the White House on Tuesday, said the updated guidance is the next step in getting back to some sense of normalcy and serves as "another reason to go get vaccinated now."
For most of the past year, the CDC had been advising Americans to wear masks outdoors if they are within 6 feet of each other. The change comes as more than half of U.S. adults have gotten at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and more than a third have been fully vaccinated.
The agency, which has been cautious in its guidance during the pandemic, essentially endorsed what many Americans have already been doing over the past several weeks. The guidance says that fully vaccinated or not, people do not have to wear masks outdoors when they walk, bike or run alone or with members of their household. They also can go maskless in small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people.
"Beginning today, gathering with a group of friends in a park, as long as you are vaccinated and outdoors, you can do it without a mask," Biden said in remarks after the new outdoor mask guidelines were shared.
President Joe Biden speaks about updated CDC guidance on masks for people who are fully vaccinated during an event in front of the White House April 27, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP vi
But the CDC has differing guidance for people who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.
Unvaccinated people — defined by the CDC as those who have yet to receive both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson formula — should wear masks at outdoor gatherings that include other unvaccinated people. They also should keep using masks at outdoor restaurants.
Fully vaccinated people do not need to cover up in those situations, the CDC says. But everyone should keep wearing masks at crowded outdoor events such as concerts or sporting events, the CDC says.
"This is another reason to go get vaccinated now," Biden said. "Go get the shot. It's never been easier."
The agency continues to recommend masks at indoor public places, such as hair salons, restaurants, shopping centers, museums and movie theaters.
"Today, I hope, is a day when we can take another step back to the normalcy of before," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. "Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what you can’t do. Today, I am going to tell you some of the things you can do, if you are fully vaccinated."
In the U.S., COVID-19 deaths are down to fewer than 700 per day and average daily cases are below 60,000. Officials insist there is a long way to go before the country can be fully at ease, but the progress is marked.
The president, who spent his first 100 days in office encouraging Americans to mask up and get vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus, will next be tasked with overcoming challenges of getting more shots in arms as demand sags and helping the country emerge from a year of isolation, disruption and confusion.
Biden on Tuesday also noted his Fourth of July pledge that Americans can safely gather with friends and family.
"Let me say first, while we still have a long way to go in this fight, a lot of work to do in May and June to get us to July 4th, we’ve made stunning progress because of all of you," Biden said.
Going forward, the Biden administration seeks to finish the nation’s mass vaccination campaign, overcoming lagging demand and communicating in clear terms what activities can be safely resumed by those who are vaccinated.
On Inauguration Day in late January, the notion of COVID-19 vaccine supply eclipsing demand seemed fanciful, with only priority groups eligible for shots and an underground economy emerging for "extra doses" for everyone else.
Now, shots are so plentiful in many places that the White House is encouraging states and pharmacy partners to set up walk-in sites for doses without appointments.
This "new phase," as Biden’s team calls it, has been the subject of intense preparation since even before the president’s inauguration. Wary of wasting a moment, Zients and other officials drafted a mountain of emails to launch the federal bureaucracy into action to be sent in the first minutes after their government email accounts were activated. Even as more Americans get vaccinated, Zients said, the White House wasn’t letting up its urgency just yet.
"I think this exact same approach that served us well the first 100 days will serve us well for the next 100 days," Zients said.
One of Biden's first actions in office was to increase the federal government's orders for the vaccines to ensure supplies for all Americans by early summer. Now the U.S. is able to turn to sharing some of the precious supply with the world, as the White House announced Monday it would do with roughly 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in the U.S. but not yet authorized for use there.
Biden also vowed to assist India, now facing a devastating virus surge and an overwhelmed medical system, and said the U.S. sent much-needed supplies such as oxygen, diagnostic tests, treatments, ventilators and personal protective equipment.
At the same time, the White House was instrumental in an agreement reached with drugmaker Sanofi on Monday to help scale up production through next year of Moderna's two-dose shot, which makes up more than 40% of doses administered in the U.S.
Believing most Americans who have yet to get a shot would do so if it were easier, the White House has deployed billions of dollars toward ads encouraging vaccines, community programs to bring doses to the hardest to reach Americans, and tax credits to encourage employers to give their workers paid time off to get protected.
"In this next phase we’ll focus on increasing accessibility, building confidence, continuing to put equity at the center of everything we do," Zients said of the push to maximize the number of Americans vaccinated in coming months. "It’s not going to be easy, but neither was getting to 200 million shots in less than 100 days, and we did that."
The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Cincinnati.