Relaxed mask rules: Rational or reckless?

·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks in most indoors settings. This new guidance comes in response to promising evidence that not only do vaccines provide protection from severe cases of COVID-19, but they are also effective at preventing the vaccinated from passing the disease to others.

“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. The new guidance does include some exceptions. Fully vaccinated people are still encouraged to wear masks when visiting health care facilities, flying, using public transit or in certain congregate settings.

President Biden called the new guidance a “great milestone” in the country’s effort to end the coronavirus pandemic. Though the vaccine rollout has slowed from its peak in mid-April, the U.S. is still administering millions of doses a day. As of Thursday, more than 118 million Americans — 35 percent of the total U.S. population — have been fully vaccinated. The daily number of COVID cases and deaths has also dropped sharply in recent weeks — though hundreds of people are still dying each day.

Why there’s debate

The CDC’s abrupt change in mask guidance — which surprised many health experts who have come to expect cautious, incremental steps from the agency throughout the pandemic — has prompted both celebration and concern among health experts and political analysts.

Supporters of the decision say science backs granting fully vaccinated people new freedoms, given the low risk they face personally and pose to others. There are also hopes that the promise of freedom from the burden of wearing a mask will help encourage some hesitant people to get the vaccine. While nearly two-thirds of Americans are still not fully vaccinated, advocates of the new policy say that number will shrink rapidly in the coming weeks, and the people in the minority who accept the risk of refusing to get vaccinated shouldn’t dictate the rules for everyone else.

Critics of the CDC's new guidance say it creates incentive for unvaccinated people to lie about their status — since there’s no way to verify their claims — which could cause new outbreaks. Others say the new policy is premature given continuing high levels of community spread and the huge share of Americans who have not been vaccinated — including groups like children and the immunocompromised who have not had the opportunity. There are also concerns about gaps in our current knowledge about the vaccines, including how long immunity will last and whether they’ll remain effective against future coronavirus variants.

What’s next

The new CDC guidelines don’t mean an end to mask requirements throughout the U.S. Those policies are set at the state and local level. Half of the country’s governors, mostly Republicans, had already lifted their statewide mandates — if they had implemented them at all. At least eight Democrat-led states have moved to adjust their mask policies following the CDC’s announcement. Others said they preferred to wait before making any changes.

Perspectives

Supporters

The end of blanket mask requirements is worth celebrating

“This is a moment to celebrate. It is not quite the pandemic’s equivalent of V-E Day. … But it could be the closest we get to a formal announcement from the federal government that, after months of death and sacrifice and ingenuity, something has been won. Call it normalcy.” — Derek Thompson, Atlantic

Freedom from masks will encourage more people to get vaccinated

“Joining the protected vaccinated minority, which we hope will rapidly become the majority, is simple. There are 80,000 locations to get the shot. Waits and lines are gone, and there are all kinds of incentives, from cash to subway rides to food. And now the big incentive to show your face and get close up again. The incentive to save your life has always been there.” — Editorial, Daily News

People who refuse to get vaccinated have chosen to accept the risk of infection

“At this point, if you’re still fully vulnerable to COVID, you almost certainly fall into one of three categories: You’ll be immune very soon, you have deliberately refused the vaccine, or you’re a child who has extremely low risk of a severe case if you get infected. On the society-wide level, the threat is fading as immunity grows, and the remaining problem is increasingly concentrated among people who are vulnerable by choice.” — Robert Verbruggen, National Review

The government should do whatever it can to stop the vaccine rollout from stalling

“As vaccination rates in America began to plateau then fall, it seemed more urgent for the agency to signal that vaccines will let people return to normal by dangling a huge incentive — a normal post-pandemic life — in front of unvaccinated people.” — German Lopez, Vox

The balance between danger of the virus and harm of restrictions is changing

“The freezing of normal life has brought big costs of its own … When Covid was raging out of control, these costs were nonetheless smaller than the alternative. With vaccines widely available, that’s no longer the case.” — David Leonhardt, New York Times

We can’t wait for the risk to drop to zero because it never will

“Good move for the CDC & our country. They must stop making perfect the enemy of very good. And this is a step in that direction.” — Yale School of Medicine professor Howard Forman

The risk posed by vaccine fakers is smaller than many people think

“I know many on Twitter are saying the unvaccinated will simply say they were vaxed. Some will, but many won’t want to, they’ll now view vaccination as something with more value and seek it out.” — Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb

Skeptics

The new rules can’t work without a way to verify vaccinations

“This announcement would be very welcome if not for one big problem: There is no concurrent requirement for proof of vaccination. Without it, the CDC announcement could end up increasing confusion, removing incentives for those yet to be inoculated and delaying the eventual goal of herd immunity that would get society truly back to normal.” — Leana S. Wen, Washington Post

The new rules will encourage dangerous behavior among the unvaccinated

“The guidance raises the possibility that those Americans who have long chafed at mask wearing and have no intention of getting the vaccine — often conservatives — will take off their masks as well. Such a scenario could ensure that the virus continues to circulate and is never fully stamped out.” — Stephen Collinson, CNN

Anti-vaccine advocates will exploit the new guidance

“I trust the science and am happy to listen to the CDC. You know who I don’t trust? All the unvaccinated, anti-masker, covid-denying [people] who’ve been flouting the scientific guidance for a year and are walking around possibly spewing the virus.” — MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid

The rollback of mask rules should have been more gradual

“Instead of taking giant steps, like I think the CDC took today, I think we should be taking small steps toward the same goal. We ultimately will get there. But I think we’ll get there more safely if we’re more cautious.” — Infectious disease expert John Swartzberg to Los Angeles Times

Masks do almost zero harm and carry significant benefits

“We are a nation bobbing in multiple crises. Not one of them involves people taking COVID-19 too seriously. Not even close. People are dying of desperate economic need, ignorance, the need for social interaction, bad policy and underlying health conditions exacerbated by our health care system. But not one American has died of being too diligent about masking.” — Jason Sattler, USA Today

There’s too much we don’t know about the vaccines and the virus

“An additional crack in the vaccine armor is that we don’t know how long our post-vaccine antibodies will be adequate to stave off sickness. Similarly, we don’t know if current or future variants will penetrate our vaccine protection. And while the severity will likely be less when someone develops an infection post-vaccine, the long-term implications of even mild or moderate cases of Covid-19 are unknown.” — Gunisha Kaur and Natalia S. Ivascu, NBC News

The risk of COVID infection is low, but it still exists

“That’s what vaccines do. They prevent illness. That’s why, when there’s a large unvaccinated population, people who’ve been vaccinated should still wear masks. It’s an incredibly low risk of transmission, but it’s not zero.” — Infectious disease expert David Boulware to Wired

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