The CDC announced that there are new rules regarding mask-wearing for people who have been vaccinated. In general, it is now considered permissible to be in outdoor spaces without a mask if you have been vaccinated. However, the new CDC mask guidelines are fairly complicated with quite a few stipulations. 

Here’s our guide to understanding the science behind the new mask rules, and where you can feel safe going mask-free if you have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Low rates of transmission outdoors

Over the last year, it’s become clear from the data that transmission rates of COVID-19 are very low in outdoor spaces. This is why the guidelines are being lifted on masks for outdoor activities amongst people who have received a vaccine.

Transmission rates are lower outside because SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—is spread as an aerosol. In an outdoor setting aerosol droplets disperse in the air and factors like sun, wind, and lots of open space dispersed them out into the air before a large enough concentration of them comes into contact with you to infect you.

Wearing a mask in public at all times is recommended until two weeks after your final dose of whichever vaccine you receive.

What outdoor activities still require a mask?

Outdoor activities that still require a mask for people who have been vaccinated include anything where there is a large gathering of people. Activities like small gatherings or outdoor exercise like running or cycling are no longer considered reasons to wear a mask, unless you have not yet been vaccinated.

A “large gathering” can be a bit subjective, but it generally includes outdoor events like a sports game, very busy restaurant, or crowded beach. Anywhere it’s difficult to be six feet apart from people who are not in your household is considered a place to wear masks.

What are the mask guidelines for indoors?

Indoors the mask guidelines and social distancing recommendations have not really changed. If you are with members of your own household only, masks are not required. However, for indoor spaces that include strangers or people outside of your immediate household, masks are still recommended at all times. This means in places like the grocery store, masks should still be worn.

Wearing masks indoors helps to protect people who can’t or won’t get vaccinated, people who have recently been vaccinated but the effects haven’t taken place yet, and the possibility of a variant spread. Areas with poor ventilation are still considered a higher risk of infection.

Mask guidelines for people who are not vaccinated

According to the new CDC mask guidelines, people who are not vaccinated should still wear a mask in public areas at all times. This recommendation is designed to encourage more people to get the vaccine so that the majority of the population will become immune and create herd immunity. While this is not an enforceable guideline, if you are not able to or cannot get COVID-19 vaccine, wearing a mask helps to protect others who may be vulnerable to COVID-19.

What are the mask guidelines if I—or a family member—have a high-risk medical condition?

People with high risk of complications from COVID-19 can benefit from a vaccine more than anyone else, so getting vaccinated is usually the best way to stay safe. If you have questions about how the vaccine may impact you speak to your doctor. 

If you or a family member who is high risk is vaccinated, you are free to avoid mask-wearing in your own home or in uncrowded public places. However, if you are not able to or have not received a vaccine and are at high risk of medical complications, extra precautions are still recommended.