The US government has officially relaxed its guidance on mask-wearing, telling Americans they no longer need to use face coverings in most situations outdoors as long as they have been fully vaccinated.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says it is safe for people vaccinated against COVID-19 to go maskless unless they are attending a crowded outdoor event, like a concert or a game of sport.
“If you are fully vaccinated and want to attend a small, outdoor gathering with people who are vaccinated or unvaccinated, or dine at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households, you can do so safely unmasked,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said today, describing it as a “step back to the normalcy of before”.
“If you are fully vaccinated, things are much safer for you than those who are not yet fully vaccinated.”
According to the latest figures, 96 million Americans have been fully vaccinated so far, more than half of the nation’s adults have received at least one shot, and an average of three million doses are being administered each day.
Nationwide, anyone aged 16 or over is currently eligible to receive the vaccines.
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Speaking to reporters from the sunny North Lawn of the White House this afternoon, President Joe Biden framed the updated guidance as another reason for Americans to get fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“Earlier today, the CDC made an important announcement,” Mr Biden said.
“If you’re fully vaccinated and outdoors, and not in a big crowd, you no longer need to wear a mask. If you’re in a crowd, like a stadium or concert, you still need to wear a mask, even if you’re outside.
“Beginning today, gathering with a group in the park, going for a picnic, as long as you are vaccinated and outdoors, you do not need to wear a mask.
“The odds of giving the virus to others is very, very low if you’ve been fully vaccinated and are outdoors.
“If you’re vaccinated, you can do more things, more safely, both outdoors and indoors.
“If you haven’t got it yet, or think you don’t need it, this is another reason to go and get vaccinated, now. Yes, the vaccines are about saving our life and the lives of people around you, but they’re also about getting us back to a more normal way of living.
“So go get the shot. It’s never been easier. And once you’re fully vaccinated, you can go without a mask when you’re outside and away from big crowds.
“Don’t let up now. Keep following the guidance. Go get your vaccination now.”
Vaccine hesitancy remains an issue for the US, with public polling consistently showing at least a fifth of adults do not intend to get the shots.
Mr Biden himself has been fully vaccinated. A reporter asked why he had worn a mask while walking outside to the lectern, implying inconsistency in his messaging about the new guidelines.
“Sir, you chose to wear a mask as you walked out here. What message were you sending by wearing a mask outside, alone?” said NBC correspondent Peter Alexander.
Mr Biden replied with a single sentence, and a grin.
“By watching me take it off, and not put it back on until I get back inside,” he said.
He did remain maskless as he walked back into the building.
While optimistic, the President did also urge Americans to remain cautious.
“We still have a long way to go in this fight,” he said.
“(But) we’ve made stunning progress because of all of you, the American people. Cases and deaths are down dramatically from where they were when I took office, and are continuing to fall.
“When I took office in January, we were losing literally tens of thousands of our seniors each week. At that time, less than 1 per cent of seniors were fully vaccinated. Today, in less than 100 days, more than 67 per cent of our seniors are fully vaccinated, and more than 80 per cent have had one shot.
“Instead of losing thousands of seniors each day, we’re saving thousands of lives, and more and more as each day goes by.”