The new guidance represents another carefully calibrated step on the road back to normal from the coronavirus outbreak that has killed over 570,000 people in the 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 each other.
The change comes as more than half of U.S. adults have gotten at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, and more than a third have been fully vaccinated.
“It’s the return of freedom,” said Dr. Mike Saag, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who welcomed the change. “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.”
More people need to be vaccinated, and concerns persist about variants and other possible shifts in the epidemic. But Saag said the new guidance is a sensible reward following the development and distribution of effective vaccines and about 140 million Americans stepping forward to get their shots.
Following the CDC's announcement, Gov. Gavin Newsom in a statement on Tuesday said his administration had reviewed the new guidelines and is “moving to align California's guidance with these common-sense updates.”
“California has made incredible progress in controlling the spread of COVID-19, resulting in the lowest positivity rate in the country,” he said. “And we have administered more than 28 million vaccine doses, including almost 6 million to those who live in our hardest-hit communities.”
But Newsom also urged residents to not let their guards down.
“While more than half of Californians 16 and older are partially or fully vaccinated, many others are still not vaccinated, and the threat of variants remains,” he added. “We need to remain vigilant and continue public health prevention measures – like wearing masks when appropriate and getting vaccinated – but the light at the end of this tunnel has never been brighter.”
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 says that 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 from there, the CDC has differing guidance for people who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.