The CDC's latest guidance says it's safe to go unmasked indoors if you're fully vaccinated.

By Lisa Milbrand
May 14, 2021
people relaxing in park
Credit: Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Your masks may get a lot less use now, if you've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Today's newest guidelines from the CDC say that people who have been vaccinated can safely congregate with people, outside and inside, without wearing a mask. "We have all longed for this moment," said Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, the director of the CDC, at a White House news conference. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic."

It's a huge turning point, more than 14 months after the first COVID lockdowns occurred, as nearly half of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. "This is a significant step in the pandemic, and we have made major progress given the incredible work done by frontline healthcare workers and individuals committed to prevention of this healthcare crisis," says Anita Gupta, DO, PharmD, MPP, adjunct assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine and pain medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  

So if the free beer, cash, or other incentives haven't enticed people to get their shots—perhaps the ability to safely stash the mask will encourage them to do it.

Keep in mind that you probably shouldn't burn your masks quite yet. Here's everything you need to know about the latest mask guidelines.

You'll still need masks in certain situations.

The CDC says that masks are still required on public transportation, like planes, trains, and buses, and in stations and airports. Some places with vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes, hospitals, doctors' offices, homeless shelters, or prisons, will likely still require masks. And individual businesses can still choose to make you wear a mask when you're there—so you might want to pack one, just in case.

Variants could complicate things.

So far, the vaccines have proven to be effective against the COVID variants that have been going around, but the CDC warns that if a new variant arrives that can get past the vaccine's protections, masks will be back. "We need to remain vigilant," Dr. Gupta says. "COVID-19 continues to impact individuals throughout the world, and we need to remember this as we make this recommendation."

If you aren't fully vaccinated, keep your mask on indoors.

The CDC guidelines haven't changed for people who have not been vaccinated. Because of the risk of hospitalization or death due to COVID, people should still mask indoors and in large group settings until two weeks after their final dose of the vaccine.

Anti-vaxxers could still pose a threat.

One of the trickiest parts of this latest CDC guidance is that people may take this as freedom to go around maskless, even if they haven't been vaccinated. And that could pose a threat of spreading the virus to children, the immunocompromised, and others who are unable to be vaccinated.

"It's true that the vaccinated pose little threat to the unvaccinated, but the problem is, how do we know who's vaccinated?" asks Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. "Without some proof, those unvaccinated—and who may not have wanted to wear a mask—will have no incentive to get vaccinated, and will be a continuing danger to others."

There may still be cases among people who were vaccinated.

COVID vaccines are highly effective—but they aren't foolproof. And so you might still hear of people testing positive who are fully vaccinated. But based on studies of the vaccine, the CDC expects that people who do test positive after being vaccinated will likely have milder cases or no symptoms at all. 

If you're immunocompromised, talk to your doctor.

For people who have complicating health issues, masks may still be important. "There is always risk and benefits," Dr. Gupta says. She advises talking with your doctor to see what makes sense for your situation.


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