On May 13th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their mask guidelines based on new studies on the vaccines. The new guidance states that people who are fully vaccinated no longer have to wear masks in most settings—whether indoor or outdoor. This still excludes situations where masks are mandated by state or local laws, and where independent businesses require them. Masks will also continue to be required on buses and at train stations and airports.
The announcement came as a surprise, considering that the CDC has been pushing mask usage heavily for the past year and a half. The CDC cites recent studies on the mRNA vaccines as the reason behind their 180° shift in their guidelines. The studies reached two very significant conclusions: the vaccines are currently effective against all known variants of COVID-19 in the U.S and vaccinated people are extremely unlikely to catch or transmit the virus. Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told the New York Times that those who contract Covid after vaccination carry too little of the virus to infect others, and new research suggests that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 94% effective in preventing symptomatic illness after full vaccination.
The response to the CDC statement was rapid. Some states instantly lifted mask mandates, while others decided to take time to evaluate their situation further. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has said that California’s mask mandate will be lifted after the state fully reopens on June 15. Stores have also begun adapting their COVID-19 restrictions. Trader Joe's updated its mask policy and will no longer require fully vaccinated customers to wear a mask, and a spokesperson from the company confirmed that stores will not request proof of vaccination from customers. Walmart has instituted similar changes, even allowing employees who are fully vaccinated to work without masks.
Though the recent mask update has made some Americans hopeful about a Covid-free future, others aren’t too comforted by the changing guidelines. The concern is that the CDC’s statement was presented too soon in the United States’ vaccination process. The population at the time of the update was 36% vaccinated, and is currently 41% fully vaccinated, 51% with at least one dose, but Dr. Ahammed Hashim, a pulmonologist in Texas, would be less worried had the CDC waited until the country had reached 60-70% immunization. He confessed to the New York Times that he “[thinks] the C.D.C. might send a wrong message saying that everything’s okay.” Even for vaccinated individuals, who are seemingly safer out and about, this news doesn’t provide the relief that they expected. Tatiana Montez, a senior at Eagle Rock, says that hearing about the lifted mask mandates in stores and other states makes her “feel super unsafe.” Maggie Beal, another senior, said that her main concern is that the update will embolden people who aren’t vaccinated to leave their houses without masks. For other students, like Anika Sood-Mankar, their worries are centered on the prospect of more deadly strains, like the B.1.617 variant in India, being able to spread quickly in the U.S thanks to reduced mask usage.
The new era of masking seems to rely on the honor system; people have to trust that those who are unmasked are doing so because they are vaccinated. Though after over a year of witnessing anti-maskers, Covid-deniers, and anti-vaxxers run wild, many are unable to trust fellow Americans to follow the rules of the updated mask policies. The honor system also poses a threat to children under 12 and immunocompromised people, who are unable to be vaccinated at this time. The new CDC guidelines put the responsibility on those who have a higher risk of infection to protect themselves from those who are unmasked, and there is no guarantee that those without masks are actually vaccinated. In states without mask mandates, the responsibility of checking immunization records falls on shopkeepers, restaurant workers, school officials, etc. The CDC update is contributing to the trend of disregarding the health and safety of disabled communities and essential workers, which has been a continuous issue throughout this pandemic.