Fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks—but there’s a catch

Here's what you need to know about the new CDC mask guidelines.

Click here to see all of PopSci’s COVID-19 coverage.

It’s news that many Americans have long been waiting for: The CDC announced today that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19—that’s two weeks after either the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot or the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna shots—no longer need to wear masks in most situations. 

“The science demonstrates that if you are fully vaccinated you are protected,” Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director told reporters in a news conference. 

Does that mean we can all take a giant garbage bag and rid the house of every last face covering we own for once and for all? Probably not. And that’s for a few reasons. For one, there are a number of exceptions to the new recommendations. The CDC still recommends Americans wear masks in a number of locations including doctor’s offices, hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term care facilities. Mask recommendations also stay in place for public transportation including buses, planes, and trains—both while in transit and in the station. And, of course, Americans will still need to follow state and local guidelines on mask wearing, which may require folks to wear face coverings at work and in other private businesses.

This new shift in guidelines comes just 16 days after the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in most outdoor settings. According to Walensky, among the reasons for this somewhat drastic change was a one-third drop in case rates over the past two weeks, increased vaccine availability (especially for adolescents who are now eligible for the Pfizer vaccine), and the emergence of new scientific developments.

Particularly important has been proof of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in general in real world populations, against variants, and in preventing transmissibility

“While this may serve as an incentive for some people to get vaccinated, that is not the purpose,” Walensky said. “Our purpose here is, as a public health agency, to follow the science and follow where we are with regard to the science and what is safe for individuals to do.”

[Read more: How long will we keep wearing masks?]

Even so, this change will be a welcoming one for many Americans. At least one third of people in the US (and counting) are fully vaccinated, and many have been frustrated at the continued restrictions still in place, despite how effective the vaccines have been shown to be. “We’ve got to liberalize the restrictions so people can feel like they’re getting back to some normalcy,” Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s senior adviser on the pandemic, told The New York Times. “Pulling back restrictions on indoor masks is an important step in the right direction.” 

But if you are still wary of leaving your mask behind, that’s okay. If anything, this past year has shown that masks are an effective public health measure. And it’s unlikely they’ll disappear even once the risks posed by COVID-19 continue to decrease. After a full year of masking up and other public health measures like strict social distancing and hand washing, this year’s flu season essentially disappeared, and many Americans have anecdotally found that they haven’t  had a single cold throughout the pandemic. So while it might be okay and safe to unmask now, staying masked up more often, such as in crowded areas and especially when you are feeling ill, will always be a safe decision.  

Claire Maldarelli

Claire Maldarelliis the Science Editor at Popular Science. She has a particular interest in brain science, the microbiome, and human physiology. In addition to Popular Science, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Scholastic’s Science World and Super Science magazines, among others. She has a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s in science journalism from New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. Contact the author here.