Editorial: Time to trash your face mask? Not so fast

Signage encourages guests to use proper protection as Universal Studios Hollywood welcomed back people in April.
(Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday announced that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 may participate in activities indoors without wearing face masks or observing social distancing, even those in crowded settings. It had previously said vaccinated people could lose the mask when outdoors, which is pretty safe even for unvaccinated people.

“We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing Thursday.

But don’t toss out your face mask and rush out on the town just yet. While this is good news from the standpoint that the updated guidelines reflect how well the U.S. is vaccinating its residents and slowing down new infections, it’s problematic because it’s not quite as simple as Walensky suggests.


For one thing, the CDC’s guidance is filled with exceptions. It doesn’t extend to buses, trains or planes. Or hospitals and nursing homes. Or prisons, or homeless shelters, or businesses that require face coverings, or ... well, you get the idea. So much for getting back to normal.

Moreover, this guidance does not supersede state and local orders. California and Los Angeles still have mask mandates for the time being. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that he may loosen the restrictions for mask wearing by June 15, when the state is set to lift all pandemic restrictions on businesses, but that some rules for indoors are likely to remain.

But the bigger complication is this: How do you know whether people have been fully vaccinated? It’s not as if you can tell from looking at them. We might have had cool apps to tell us, but efforts to create vaccination certification programs got so bogged down in nasty partisan politics that some states have gone so far as to ban them.

What you can be sure of is that the odds are good that most of the strangers passing through a public place, masked or not, are not fully vaccinated. Only about one-third of the population has been, which means they received their final shots more than two weeks ago.

CDC officials no doubt intended to lift the spirits of pandemic-weary Americans as well as give vaccination foot-draggers incentive to get their shots (oddly, the threat of a painful prolonged death isn’t quite enough for some). But this well-intentioned announcement is likely to confuse people and lead to more resistance to mask wearing among unvaccinated people, as well as put pressure on state and local health officials to drop mask mandates earlier than is wise.

Science and data back up the CDC’s overall point that vaccinated people are in little danger if they hang out with unmasked and unvaccinated people indoors. Nevertheless, there’s still a risk of sparking new infections when you gather unvaccinated and unmasked people in a room and let them mix.