Here's Why the CDC Decided Fully-Vaccinated People Can Go Maskless Indoors

woman in office pulling down mask

Halfpoint / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • New CDC guidance says fully-vaccinated people do not need to wear masks or physically distance indoors.
  • Despite the new guidance, states and businesses may set their own rules. 
  • Not ready to ditch your mask? Do what feels comfortable for you.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance whether they are inside, outside, in a small group, or large group. The updated guidance was announced on Thursday, May 13, at a White House briefing.

Because the CDC has been so conservative with its COVID projections and guidance, the change came as a surprise to many. It was just over two weeks ago that the organization affirmed fully vaccinated people could go maskless outside.

People who are partially vaccinated, are not yet two weeks past their final dose, or aren't vaccinated at all should continue to wear masks when engaging with others. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna two-dose vaccine, or two weeks after their Johnson & Johnson singe-dose vaccine.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, during the Thursday briefing. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.  We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”

It's important to note the federal guidance is just that: guidance. People will still need to wear masks if mandated by their state/territory, workplace, or establishment they are visiting.

The New Mask Guidance Doesn't Apply to Everyone

According to Glenn Wortmann, MD, FIDSA, FACP, Section Director of Infectious Diseases at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the new CDC guidance includes some caveats.

"For example, it doesn’t apply to [fully-vaccinated] people with depressed immune systems, such as people who have received transplants or who are on immunpsuppressing drugs," Wortmann tells Verywell.

The guidance is also notably silent on how kids under 12—who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination—will or will not be at risk if most of the adults in their life stop wearing masks.

The CDC says fully-vaccinated people should still wear masks on public transportation such as buses, planes, and trains.

Why the Sudden Change?

In response to a reporter’s question on whether the CDC was basing its updated guidelines on science or recent criticism, Walensky said several things have happened in the last two weeks that prompted the decision:

  • COVID-19 cases in this country dropped by a third
  • Communities received more vaccine supply
  • Young adults between the ages of 12 and 15 are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine (Pfizer, specifically)

Walensky said recent studies demonstrating the success of the vaccines also powered the decision.

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 5 shows the vaccines are highly effective against variants. Specifically, the shots are 89.5% effective against any documented infection with the B.1.1.7 variant, and 75% effective against infection with the B.1.351 variant. Vaccines are even more effective at preventing severe, critical, or fatal cases of COVID-19: 97.4% for either variant.

Walensky also cited a May 6 study published in JAMA, which shows vaccination significantly reduces both symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID-19 infection.

You Don't Have to Ditch Your Mask

Despite the new guidance, many public health experts say there is no rush to abandon the precaution of mask-wearing.

“Go at your own pace,” Leana Wen, MD, MSc, FAAEM, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “Consider seeing people outdoors without masks only, then indoors only with those you know to be fully vaccinated.” 

At the White House briefing, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci, MD, expressed that while vaccines are extremely effective, there's nothing wrong with playing it safe and continuing to wear a mask.

"As we know, the risk is extremely low of getting infected if you're vaccinated, whether you're indoors or outdoors," Facui said. "But there are those people who don't want to take that bit of a risk. There's nothing wrong with that, and they shouldn't be criticized.” 

What This Means For You

If you are fully vaccinated, you may be able to take your mask off around other people—both indoors and outdoors—unless the laws of your jurisdiction or rules of shops or businesses say otherwise. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Abu-Raddad LJ, Chemaitelly H, Butt AA. Effectiveness of the BNT162b2 Covid-19 vaccine against the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variantsN Engl J Med. Published online May 5, 2021:NEJMc2104974. doi:10.1056/NEJMc2104974

  2. Angel Y, Spitzer A, Henig O, et al. Association Between Vaccination With BNT162b2 and Incidence of Symptomatic and Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infections Among Health Care WorkersJAMA. Published online May 06, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.7152

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.