Medical Examiner

What the CDC’s New Guidance on Outdoor Masks Really Means

Groups of people sitting on blankets at a park.
Paul Kim/Unsplash

You no longer have to wear a mask while walking around outside, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency released new guidance Tuesday, after Slate, other publications, and many experts noted that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 outdoors when not in a stagnant, crowded setting is very, very, very, very, very, very low.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you never have to wear a mask outside again. The guidance goes into a lot of details about various scenarios in which you should or should not don a mask, depending on your vaccination status, what you are doing, and with whom you are doing it. There is a color-coded chart, with illustrations! If you are unvaccinated, for example, and running outdoors with members of your household—no mask. If you are vaccinated and attending a small outdoor gathering with vaccinated and unvaccinated people—no mask. But if you are unvaccinated in that situation—mask. And no matter your vaccination status, if you are outside attending a big event, say, at a sports event or a parade—mask. As leading aerosol expert Linsey Marr noted to the New York Times, it seems like one would need to carry around a little cheat sheet to remember it all. Obviously, that isn’t really going to work. (Also, I fear that we are in for a lot of these charts in the coming months. Please—get vaccinated so we can streamline the charts.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I think the bottom line here is somewhat simple, though: Mask up in crowds. Otherwise—though some judgment calls might be involved—if you’re outdoors, it’s just not as necessary.

Even if you will need to spend some time parsing vaccination statuses and risk tolerance levels to gather with a small group of friends in a park, the evidence and now the guidance seem clear on one wonderful point: There are many situations outside where you can safely go bare-faced. Though if you do see someone running in a mask, there’s no need to shame them for it. And if you want to keep wearing your mask outside, that’s fine, too.

To understand how emerging guidance on masks became so controversial, listen to this recent episode of What Next.

Advertisement