Fully vaccinated people can ditch their masks and ignore physical distancing both outdoors and indoors, the Biden administration said Thursday in a dramatic shift for a federal team that has been panned as overly cautious and a drag on the return to normal life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than one-third of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and protected from the coronavirus, so they can start doing the things they gave up more than a year ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus,” a maskless President Biden said from the White House Rose Garden. “I think it’s a great milestone.”
Relaxed mask rules do not apply to health care settings — such as hospitals or doctor’s offices — or in homeless shelters or jails. And masks still will be required on means of public transportation such as planes, trains and buses.
But the revised guidance marked a watershed moment in the long-running pandemic.
“I’m excited,” said Kirby Poelstra, 24, of Silver Spring, Maryland. “I also feel like a lot of people have kind of developed a security surrounding the mask, so it’s going to be a little weird to take it off.”
The Montgomery County teacher said she has been fully vaccinated for a while, and the new rules are another step toward normalcy.
Another Silver Spring resident, 64-year-old Patti Deporter, was maskless while walking her small white dog around her neighborhood. She thinks the new rules are “great.”
Despite being fully vaccinated, Ms. Deporter said she still wants to be cautious in certain situations.
“I will still probably continue to wear one inside with people I don’t know, certainly, [and at] crowded outdoor activities like a baseball game,” said Ms. Deporter, who works as a public accountant.
The guidance sparked visible changes at the White House. Senators and Mr. Biden took their masks off during a meeting on infrastructure, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican.
First lady Jill Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, marveled at the sudden change as they toured West Virginia with actress Jennifer Garner to promote vaccinations for adolescents.
“We felt free, for the first time,” Mr. Manchin said, referring to the maskless flight from Washington.
“We felt naked, right?” Mrs. Biden said, before pausing: “I didn’t mean it THAT way.”
“We felt free,” Mr. Manchin reiterated.
Masks have been a political lightning rod since the CDC recommended their widespread use in April 2020, citing the extent of the asymptomatic spread of the virus. Government scientists insisted masks were helpful in catching potentially infectious droplets that spew from people’s noses and mouths, though some viewed face coverings and the mandates regarding their use as a sinister symbol of government overreach.
Either way, widespread acceptance of the practice was rather breathtaking: Government officials told millions of Americans with no culture of mask-wearing to cover their faces in public, and many of them did for more than a year.
Mr. Biden credited Americans for their resilience in the face of a pandemic that has killed more than 580,000 people in the U.S. and pushed many out of their jobs.
“So many lives upended, and so many months that our kids couldn’t be in school,” he said.
The CDC on Thursday said people should follow any state or local rules on mask wearing and adhere to requirements at workplaces and local businesses, although the updated guidance will likely prod entities to rethink strict rules now that more than 35% of the U.S. population and 45% of Americans age 18 or older are fully vaccinated.
A person is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson or the second dose of a vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.
Mr. Biden said people who don’t meet that criteria should mask up.
“It’s not an enforcement thing, we’re not going to go out and arrest people,” he said. He also asked people to respect those who continue to wear masks.
Indeed, it will be difficult to know for sure who is vaccinated and who is not, so it is possible or even likely that people who aren’t vaccinated will take advantage of the shift by dropping their masks instead of rolling up their sleeves for the vaccine.
Conversely, the guidance should help vaccinated people who have been hesitant to take off their face coverings outside, particularly in blue states, out of fear of public judgment.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky emphasized the latter group, saying she had a duty to advise people who got vaccinated as data pours in.
“This guidance is really just for individuals who are vaccinated and what they can do — safely do,” Dr. Walensky said. “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”
She downplayed the idea that CDC experts whisked out the guidance to get vaccine-hesitant people off the sidelines. Even so, critics of the administration have scolded Mr. Biden’s team, saying its cautious approach depressed interest in the shots — if nothing changes, why get vaccinated?
“Today’s announcement on masks, while overdue, is certainly a step in the right direction, and I am pleased to see the CDC finally take action to align its guidance with the recommendations of scientific experts,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican.
Public health experts also praised the move.
“I think the guidance reflects the science and is very welcome. Vaccinated people do not pose a threat to others — including unvaccinated children — in the manner an unvaccinated person does,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Dr. Walensky said COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be at least 90% effective at preventing disease in the real world and people who get immunized are far less likely to spread the virus. The rolling average of cases is down to 36,000 per day from an apex of 250,000 in January, while deaths are down to 630 per day from an average of 3,000 during the peak.
The vaccines have performed well against known variants of the virus, prompting the CDC to say the body of science demanded the change.
Also Thursday, Americans ages 12 to 15 started to receive the Pfizer vaccine after federal regulators and advisers greenlighted the shots for adolescents earlier in the week.
“If you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, now is the time,” Biden coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.