States Are Lifting Mask Mandates—How to Decide if You Should Still Wear One

There are a few factors to consider before ditching your face mask for good.

Will Everyone Need a Fourth Dose of a COVID-19 Vaccine? - Thoughtful businesswoman removing protective face mask at bus stop
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As COVID-19 cases continue to decline, states with mask mandates have begun lifting those regulations in public places and schools—but the updated guidance isn't necessarily in line with that from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leaving many wondering what to do.

The moves to loosen masking requirements come as COVID-19 cases across the US drop significantly. CDC data show that as of February 16, daily new cases dropped 43% compared to the week before.

"We're seeing a continuous decrease in the number of cases around the country and this allows us to be cautiously optimistic about the situation," Carlos Acuna-Villaorduña, MD, infectious disease specialist at Boston University School of Medicine, tells Health. "I think that's the rationale behind why some of the mask mandates are being lifted at this point."

But even as more states drop their mask guidance, the CDC hasn't adjusted their own recommendations—the agency still urges anyone over 2 years old not "up to date" on their COVID-19 vaccines to mask up in indoor public places.

The variations in guidance—and the loosening mask restrictions in most states—has left many questioning the right course of action with their own masking practices. What does the loosening of these masking mandates really entail, and how can you determine if wearing a mask is right for you, even if your state no longer requires it? Here's what experts recommend keeping in mind.

Which states no longer require masks?

The better question might be: "Which states still require masks in public places?" According to AARP, only four states—Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon, and Washington—plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, currently require most people to wear masks indoors in public places.

Many states began easing or eliminating masking orders over the summer when the CDC announced in May that fully vaccinated people could safely remove their face coverings in public settings.

That guidance, however, was quickly pulled back when the Delta variant—and then the Omicron variant—caused an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Just a few months later, in July, the CDC recommended again that all people mask up in areas of high transmission. In response to those recommendations, several states that had previously loosened masking regulations reinstated them.

To be 100% sure where your state stands on masking mandates, check in with your state's health department website.

Are masks still required in some situations, regardless of loosening mandates?

This depends on your specific state, as well. New York, which lifted its mask mandate on February 10, still requires masks for everyone in hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, and public transportation, according to Governor Hochul's website. Schools, too, will continue to require masking until further notice.

New York's not the only state with these requirements: California, Colorado, Indiana, and other states will continue to require masks for all people in places like schools, long-term care facilities, health care settings, correctional facilities and detention centers, or on public transportation.

The CDC also still has requirements for all people to wear masks on all forms of public transportation (planes, trains, buses) while traveling into, within, and out of the US. The mask requirements also extend to US transportation hubs like airports and bus or train stations.

Which factors should you consider in deciding when to wear a mask—or not?

If you have the option to wear a mask or not—which is what the majority of people in the US are dealing with right now—there are some factors to take into account when making the decision to go maskless.

First and foremost, your vaccination status matters: If you're "up to date" on your vaccines, you can rest assured that you're doing your part in helping bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end. "The pandemic will end but the speed at which it ends is determined by us, says Dr. Acuna-Villaorduña. "We must stay the course, use what we know has worked and continue to vaccinate people, continue to use high-quality masks, work on ventilation, use all of the tools that we now have to get us there.

Past that, your own comfort and sense of security matters. "If you feel comfortable and protected in a mask despite the mandate lifting, feel free to continue masking," Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health, tells Health.

You can also take into account where you're going. Crowded settings with little ventilation (think: grocery stores or other retailers, enclosed restaurants), you may still want to wear a mask, especially if you don't know the vaccination status of those around you, according to Dr. Parikh.

Your location in the country matters, too. If there's low COVID-19 transmission in your community (you can check that via your local health department's website), you can likely feel safe to remove your mask, says Dr. Acuna-Villaorduña. But, he adds, if you're still in a high-transmission area, it might be a good idea. "Even if we're seeing optimistic trends, there are still some areas where there is significant transmission. People in such areas should consider wearing masks despite the metrics or rules that may be in place."

Finally, your health—and the health of those closest to you—is a huge factor in deciding when and wear to still mask up. "People should consider not only [themselves] but [their] household," says Dr. Acuna-Villaorduña. "If somebody in your household has a weakened immune system or is at high risk, you should consider wearing a mask as a way to protect that person."

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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