Who are the CDC’s new guidelines really for?

Americans are ready to lose their masks.
Americans are ready to lose their masks.
Image: REUTERS/Tom Brenner
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On April 27, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) relaxed its rules for mask use outdoors, telling vaccinated Americans they could shed their protective coverings when outdoors alone, with members of their own households, or in small gatherings with other vaccinated individuals.

President Joe Biden hailed the new mandate as a milestone in the effort to resume normal daily activity, noting the new mask rules as another good reason to get vaccinated.

Still, while US Democrats and Republicans alike cheered the loosened guidelines, the new rules suffer from a single, glaring flaw: They’re unclear and, arguably, confusing. Like those in the early days of the pandemic, such vague rules leave the work of determining what activities are safe to the average person.

Americans, if Twitter was any indication, were left confused and annoyed by the new guidelines. “Now if you’re fully vaxxed you can go outside with no mask on,& wear it inside or where [there’s] larger groups of people.I know info changes as we learn more. But, many unvaxxed will lie about it. I [don’t] trust them. My mask is my friend. It stays on,” one twitter user said.

The CDC’s new guidelines fell short of encouraging fully vaccinated Americans to shed their masks in the places many of us have avoided for more than a year: large, populated indoor spaces such as casinos and churches. This is sensible given that such indoor activities offer a low (but still present) risk of infection if people follow social distancing rules. But it’s confusing since the CDC had already told vaccinated folk they could gather indoors with members of their households, even if a few members hadn’t received a vaccine.

If read literally, this latest update seems to be lauding the safety of activities we already knew to be safe. Studies suggest the vast majority of Covid-19 transmission happens indoors; the loosened guidelines for outdoor activities hiking, walking, biking, and picnics are old hat. Those trying to make sense of the CDC’s conflicting advice might wonder how unmasked, unvaccinated people are safe at an outdoor gathering, but not at an outdoor restaurant, or at a sporting event with reduced seating, considering the changes to mask usage would only affect vaccinated Americans in these more intimate settings.

The announcement included a color-coded chart for unvaccinated Americans, which shows it’s “safest” to be unmasked in certain settings—contrary to most people’s understanding that a mask is recommended everywhere (in some parts of the country, of course, not wearing a mask has long been the default even among unvaccinated people).

Leading aerosol expert Linsey Marr suggested she’d need “a cheat sheet with all these different stipulations” when she spoke to the New York Times after the announcement. Though the new guidelines could ”give people a break when the risk is extremely low,” as Marr told the Times in a separate interview, the lack of access to backing science, and the confusing nature of some of the changes compared to older rules are likely to leave room for confusion, if not confrontation.

And yet, some have found this incremental move towards normal life to be freeing. Maryland governor Larry Hogan announced that people in his state no longer needed their masks outdoors regardless of vaccination status, though he strongly encouraged continued mask usage for those without vaccinations. New York governor Andrew Cuomo called the new rules ‘liberating,” according to the New York Post, which interviewed a handful of New Yorkers grateful to be maskless in public.

“The CDC guidelines aren’t confusing,” New York resident Mason Clifford told the Post, adding “people need to stop bitching and move on with their lives.”

Though Covid-19 cases are going down—the US is averaging less than 55,000 cases a day, a significant drop from a few weeks prior—the confusing guidelines may lead to sticky situations for grocery store clerks, convenience store cashiers, and other service workers as they continue to ask the maskless to wear one while they shop indoors.

While Democratic and Republican governors and lawmakers have reacted differently to the pandemic, both have acknowledged the less than ideal situation caused by the pandemic while openly bidding patience until normal life resumes. The CDC’s guidelines, previous versions of which have been rejected by GOP lawmakers, large corporations, and even a few Democrats, have now empowered states to announce new, relaxed social guidelines ahead of a summer of boosted economic activity.