Here’s When You Still Need to Wear a Mask, Per CDC Guidelines—And Why It’s So Important to Do So

The CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can ditch their masks in most situations, but there are still some exceptions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surprised most people last week when the agency announced that those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most situations to protect against the virus.

Reactions were mixed—while plenty of people celebrated the move, there have also been a lot of questions popping up about this announcement. A few of the most common: Can you really go without masks in stores if you're fully vaccinated? What about if the store and your local area have different policies? And what's the deal if you're immunocompromised or have kids at home? Don't panic—there are answers to all of this. Here's everything you need to know.

Getty Images / Photo Illustration by Jo Imperio for Health

So, when do you need to wear a mask right now?

First and foremost, it depends on your vaccination status, William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Health. "Unvaccinated people should keep their masks on, and keep doing the things they've done in the past," he says. That means wearing a mask when you're in public, doing your best to stay six feet away from others, and trying to avoid crowds and public spaces, per the CDC.

If you're fully vaccinated, it's a different story. The CDC now says that you can feel comfortable going without a mask indoors in most situations. However, there are some caveats. Masks are still recommended and even required in these situations, per the CDC:

  • On planes
  • On buses
  • On trains
  • In transportation hubs like airports and stations
  • Where your local government requires masks
  • Where stores require masks

Worth noting: A growing number of stores, including Costco, Walmart, Target, and Starbucks have said that they're ending their mask mandates for fully vaccinated shoppers. Conversely, some health care providers are mandating masks in their facilities, though this is still on a case-by-case basis.

If you're hesitant about taking your mask off in public despite being fully vaccinated, you can rest assured that it is largely a safe move. "If you're fully vaccinated, there's no benefit to wearing a mask unless you're immunocompromised," infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health.

Why? "People who are immunocompromised don't respond optimally to the vaccine," Dr. Schaffner says. Meaning, the vaccine should offer you good protection against COVID-19, but it may not be as much as someone who is not immunocompromised.

If you have children at home but you're fully vaccinated, you should also be OK to go into a store without a mask, Timothy Murphy, MD, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells Health.

"Children don't seem to acquire COVID-19 as easily and don't transmit it as easily," he says. "When they do, the illness tends to be mild, although you don't want to expose your child to the virus." The likelihood of getting and passing on the virus if you're fully vaccinated also seems to be small, he says. Still, Dr. Murphy recommends doing what feels right to you. "Use your own judgment and comfort level to guide you," he says. "But I don't think having children at home would make me uncomfortable not wearing a mask in public."

OK, what about state and local mask requirements?

It's important to point out that the CDC's recommendations are just that. Meaning, it's not law. As a result, if your state, city, or town requires that you wear masks in public, you still need to legally do that, Dr. Adalja says.

It can get a little fuzzy sometimes though—especially when state or local government rules don't coincide with store rules. As a rule of thumb, if your state or local government requires masks but the store you're in doesn't, government ruling takes precedence, says Dr. Adalja. On the flip side, if your local government doesn't require masks but a store does, you need to follow the store's policy, says Dr. Murphy.

And, if there are mixed policies in the stores you want to visit, you may need to be taking your mask off and on. "Be compliant," Dr. Schaffner says. "You can go into one store without your mask and put it on for another store. Don't make it a big deal—just chill out and put your mask on."

Overall, Dr. Schaffner stresses the importance of getting vaccinated. "All of this confusion would disappear if everybody got vaccinated," he says.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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