Do I Still Need to Wear a Mask? What the New CDC Guidelines Mean for You

After more than a year of mask mandates, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Thursday, May 13, that fully vaccinated people can mostly go ahead and stop wearing a mask and social distancing-- both inside and out.

"Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance," the CDC said.

The latest changes have left a lot of people with a lot of questions. Here are the answers to FAQ’s around the CDC’s updated mask guidance.

Was the change based on science?

The CDC says that yes, this decision was based on the current state of the pandemic in the U.S., along with evidence that vaccines are extremely effective in the real world. "That science, in conjunction with all of the epidemiologic data that we have, really says now is the moment," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said.

The number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States have declined significantly. That suggests that because of vaccination — and because some people are immune because of previous infection with the coronavirus — the pandemic is gradually coming under control.

Does CDC's announcement change my local rules?

Not automatically. The public health system in the United States is decentralized. CDC doesn't run or oversee and can't overrule your local or state health department — it just provides support, such as partial funding and guidance. You'll still need to check the local rules where you live to see how they've changed (if they have) in response to the CDC's updated guidance.

Will I need a booster shot?

We don't know yet. Researchers are still studying COVID-19 to determine if booster shots will be necessary. It is typical for any virus to mutate, and this could mean that new versions of the vaccine will be developed, similar to the process we have in place for the flu. 

What about going to the grocery store or the office? If a business still requires a mask, am I required to wear one?

Whether you need to wear a mask indoors in public venues will depend on local mandates and guidelines, as well as businesses, which make their own operating decisions. The CDC guidelines require shoppers, diners and anyone visiting a private business to observe the business' rules.

For now, when you leave home, it makes sense to bring a mask with you in case the place you're going still has a "mask required" sign on the door.

What about on planes, trains and buses? Do I still have to wear a mask on there?

Yes, no changes on that front yet. The CDC requires that masks be worn by travelers on all planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within or out of the United States and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations.

As of June 10, 2021, the CDC announced that it will be amending its Face Masks Order to not require people to wear a mask in outdoor areas of conveyances (if such outdoor areas exist on the conveyance) or while outdoors at transportation hubs.

Is it safe to dine indoors?

The good news about COVID-19 vaccines is that they are highly effective at preventing people from contracting the virus and, even if they do, at preventing people from getting very sick. Those who are vaccinated should feel comfortable following CDC guidelines about resuming their previous activities, including dining out, unmasked.

Still, no vaccine is 100% effective so, if you still have concerns, choose an outdoor patio for dining where tables are spaced apart.

What about concerts and sporting events?

If people are going to attend a live event, they should keep their group small, choose an outdoor venue where ventilation is better and distancing from others is possible. It's hard to know whether you'll be in close proximity with someone who has the virus, so those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear a mask.

How do I know people around me are fully vaccinated?

You don't. The U.S. federal government has declined to pursue the idea of vaccine passports that would verify someone's vaccination status as a way of allowing them to follow different sets of rules.

"The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential," White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients said in an April press briefing. "There'll be no federal vaccination database [and] no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential."

Will I be asked to prove I'm vaccinated in stores or other indoor spaces?

The new CDC recommendations could put cities and businesses in sticky situations as there's no way to tell who is and isn't vaccinated other than asking to see their vaccination cards.

The relaxation of mask and social distancing guidelines largely relies on an honor system, which has led some to raise concerns that case rates could increase again if people who aren't fully vaccinated stop wearing masks.

Can I still wear a mask even if I'm fully vaccinated?

Of course. While the updated guidelines may be welcome news and a sign that a return to normalcy is around the corner, many may still be hesitant to take off their masks. Masks served as one of the main forms of protection against COVID-19 and people may feel like stripping them off is a risk. That's OK and adjusting could take some time, experts say.

Bottom line: If you're fully vaccinated and there are no local rules or business rules requiring masks, it's about personal preference.

Does this mean the pandemic is over?

Certainly not, though it's a sign that health officials think the U.S. is on the road to emerging from it. "This past year has shown us that this virus can be unpredictable," Walensky said when announcing the new guidelines. That's especially true as new more transmissible variants continue to emerge. "If things get worse, there is always a chance we may need to make changes to these recommendations. But we know that the more people who are vaccinated, the less cases we will have and the less chance of a new spike or additional variants emerging."