Vaccinated Americans Can Now Go Without Masks in Most Indoor and Outdoor Places, CDC Says

Officials are hoping that lifting mask restrictions will incentivize people to get vaccinated with the rate of inoculations slowing

Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can now be indoors or outdoors without masks or social distancing in most cases, the Centers for Disease Control said Thursday.

The announcement marks a major shift in public health guidance more than a year into the pandemic. The CDC, which had said last month that fully vaccinated Americans can stop wearing masks outdoors in small groups, cited the strong protection from the vaccines and the steep decline in new COVID-19 cases in their announcement.

"The science is clear: If you are fully vaccinated, you are protected, and you can start doing the things that you stopped doing because of the pandemic," the CDC said in a statement on Thursday.

CDC mask guidance
People with and without masks walk around Central Park in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty

Fully vaccinated people will still need to wear masks at the doctor, in hospitals or in long-term care facilities, and when on public transportation such as buses, planes or trains. They will also be required in transportation hubs such as airports or train stations, and in jails or homeless shelters. The CDC is also leaving the final decision on mask mandates to local and state governments, which can continue to require them for fully vaccinated individuals.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna's vaccine, or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

Officials hope that lifting mask restrictions will encourage more Americans to get vaccinated as the rate of inoculations slows. As of May 13, just under half of the U.S. population, 46.4%, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 35.4% are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. But the number of daily vaccinations has dropped from a peak of more than 3 million shots a day on average to just over 2 million in the last month.

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New COVID-19 cases are also on the decline as more people get vaccinated. As of May 13, the U.S. is seeing an average of around 36,000 new cases a day, a 30% decrease in the last two weeks, according to The New York Times.

Listen below to the episode of our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day for more on the new CDC guidelines.

The CDC was criticized last month for not doing more to change COVID-19 guidelines for fully vaccinated Americans and incentivize people to sign up for their shots.

"We've got to liberalize the restrictions so people can feel like they're getting back to some normalcy," Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, told The New York Times. "Pulling back restrictions on indoor masks is an important step in the right direction."

Fauci added that vaccinated people should not be held back by the half of the country that has not gotten their shots.

"You can't inhibit people from doing the things they want to do, which is one of the reasons they wanted to get vaccinated in the first place, because other people are not getting vaccinated," he said.

Under the new guidance, there won't be a way for people to identify who is going maskless because they are vaccinated versus those who refuse to wear a mask and have not been inoculated. Fauci acknowledged that some people who are vaccinated may be reluctant to go without a mask.

"For those who are more risk averse, you have a choice of continuing to wear it if you want to," he said.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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