NEW YORK (AP) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines Tuesday on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don't need to cover their faces anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers.
And those who are unvaccinated can go outside without masks in some situations, too.
The new guidance represents another carefully calibrated step on the road back to normal from the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 570,000 people in U.S.
For most of the past year, the CDC had been advising Americans to wear masks outdoors if they are within 6 feet of one another.
"Today, I hope, is a day when we can take another step back to the normalcy of before," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. "Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what you can't do. Today, I am going to tell you some of the things you can do, if you are fully vaccinated."
The change comes as more than half of U.S. adults — or about 140 million people — have received at least one dose of vaccine, and more than a third have been fully vaccinated.
Walensky said the decision was driven by rising vaccination numbers; declines in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths; and research showing less than 10 percent of documented instances of transmission of the virus happened outdoors.
Dr. Mike Saag, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, welcomed the change.
"It's the return of freedom," Saag said. "It's the return of us being able to do normal activities again. We're not there yet, but we're on the exit ramp. And that's a beautiful thing."
Some experts portrayed the relaxed guidance as a reward and a motivator for more people to get vaccinated — a message President Joe Biden sounded, too.
"The bottom line is clear: If you're vaccinated, you can do more things, more safely, both outdoors as well as indoors," Biden said. "So for those who haven't gotten their vaccinations yet, especially if you're younger or thinking you don't need it, this is another great reason to go get vaccinated now."
The CDC, which has been cautious in its guidance during the crisis, essentially endorsed what many Americans have already been doing over the past several weeks.
The CDC said whether they are fully vaccinated or not, people do not have to wear masks outdoors when they walk, bike or run alone or with members of their household. They can also go maskless in small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people.
But unvaccinated people — defined as those who have yet to receive both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson formula — should wear masks at small outdoor gatherings that include other unvaccinated people, the CDC said. They also should keep their faces covered when dining at outdoor restaurants with friends from multiple households.
And everyone, fully vaccinated or not, should keep wearing masks at crowded outdoor events such as concerts or sporting events, the CDC said.
The agency continues to recommend masks at indoor public places, such as hair salons, restaurants, shopping centers, gyms, museums and movie theaters, saying it is still the safer course even for vaccinated people.
"Right now, it's very hard to tease apart who is vaccinated," Walensky explained.
She said the CDC guidance should be a model for states in setting their mask-wearing requirements.
The advice to the unvaccinated applies to adults and children alike, according to the CDC. None of the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S. is authorized for children younger than 16.
"The biggest thing that it helps us is our mental health," said Tim Stephens, a 52-year-old software salesman in Birmingham, Alabama, who suffered a bout of COVID-19 and has since gotten vaccinated. "To be able to feel like we're turning the corner and can confidently go out and experience life and do a lot of the things that we did before COVID became an acronym in our world. It's one more step in the process of moving beyond this."