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CDC urges organizers of large gatherings to ‘strongly encourage’ use of face masks

The agency issued the guidance at its first full briefing for the public in more than three months

Protesters near Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)

Federal health officials on Friday urged organizers of large gatherings that involve shouting, chanting or singing to “strongly encourage” attendees use cloth face coverings to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

The guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes after more than a week of national protests against police brutality where many attendees and police did not wear masks. It also coincides with President Trump’s plans to hit the campaign trail next week and to accept his party’s nomination in Jacksonville, Fla. later this summer. The Republican National Committee has indicated it does not want to require participants to wear masks for the speech.

Jay Butler, CDC’s deputy director of infectious diseases, sidestepped questions about whether the agency’s guidance about large gatherings applies to political rallies, saying the recommendations speak for themselves.

“They are not regulations. They are not commands," said Butler, who is helping to lead the agency’s response. "But they are recommendations or even suggestions … how you can have a gathering that will keep people as safe as possible.”

Read: CDC guidance on events and gatherings

A similar recommendation to use cloth face coverings in settings that involve shouting, chanting, or singing, including choirs, was removed from the agency’s guidance for reopening houses of worship two weeks ago after weeks of debate between the White House and the CDC.

Asked whether social distancing measures would be in place for the Republican convention, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said in a television interview that his city is “on the full road to reopening.”

He added: “If circumstances change in the interest of public health, obviously the RNC, the president, myself, if there was an unexpected outbreak, health risk, hospitalization systems that couldn’t handle it, you -- we would obviously adapt at that point in time. ... We expect to have a convention that demonstrates that Jacksonville is open for business.”

When states first began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures in the summer, tensions around face masks had been mounting since the CDC first recommended them. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

At the CDC briefing -- the agency’s first full-fledged one in more than three months -- Director Robert Redfield acknowledged Americans are eager to return to normal activities. But it’s important for them to remember “this situation is unprecedented and that the pandemic has not ended," he said.

Officials said the guidance released Friday is intended to help people stay as safe as possible as the country heads into the summer months and Americans seek to reconnect with family and friends. Large in-person gatherings where it is difficult to stay six feet apart and where attendees travel from outside the local area pose the highest risk for infection, the guidance says. Gatherings mentioned in the guidance include concerts, festivals, conferences, parades, weddings and sporting events.

“We recognize that we’re all getting tired of staying at home and people long for the lives that they had back in December,” Butler said. The resources are aimed at helping people make decisions about how to resume some activities while continuing to follow many of the public health recommendations to prevent transmission, he said.

Read: CDC guidance on daily life

Public health officials have criticized the administration’s response for lacking clear and consistent communication about risks and for sidelining the CDC. The last CDC briefing was March 9.

“If the guidance isn’t clear from the top, from our political leaders and public health leaders, people will be confused," said Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“I am really concerned about some of the things that I hear about this virus being behind us or we aren’t planning on issuing any more directives or communicating about this," he said. "I think it’s going to be really important from the top of government... to be communicating about risks.”

CDC’s Butler said the number of new cases each day has been “relatively plateaued over a prolonged period of time” nationwide. But communities are experiencing different levels of transmission as they ease mitigation efforts, he said.

In coming weeks, states could see new case growth as they reopen and the number of mass gatherings also increases. He warned about “additional potential challenges” in the fall and winter when covid-19 and seasonal flu could be circulating together.

If cases start to increase dramatically, he said officials may need to reconsider the kinds of measures states used in March, such as stay-at-home orders. But he said those decisions should be made by local officials. He noted that many Americans remain at risk for infection because the vast majority still have not been exposed to the virus.

Public health experts say they are seeing a “new wave” of states sliding into surges of cases, including Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. Many of those states lifted stay-at-home orders and business restrictions a few weeks ago.

Butler cautioned that a “temporal association doesn’t prove causation.” He said other metrics, such as hospitalization rates, offer additional clues. In most parts of the country that have seen an increase in diagnosed cases in the past two weeks, “we’re not confirming dramatic increases in the number of hospitalizations,” he said. But officials will be monitoring those trends closely, he said.

On large gatherings, the guidance says event planners should consider several strategies, from broadcasting regular announcements about steps attendees could take to reduce the virus’ spread, to limiting attendance or seating capacity to allow for social distancing, to reconfiguring parking lots to limit congregation points. It also suggests limiting attendance to people who live in the area and working with local officials to identify how to separate people with covid-like symptoms, or those who have tested positive for the virus but do not have symptoms.

Separately, officials laid out recommendations to help individuals reduce their own risk for infection as they resume daily activities. Besides urging people to continue taking precautions such as hand-washing, wearing face covering, and keeping six feet from others, it made specific suggestions for certain activities, including:

*Going to the bank — Use drive-through services or ATMs;

*Hosting a cookout — Encourage people to bring their own food and drinks and identify one person to serve shareable items;

* Traveling overnight — Consider taking the stairs at hotels, or wait to ride alone in the elevator or only with people from your household.

Officials also released a report showing Americans strongly supported stay-at-home orders in early to mid-May, with most adults reporting they would not feel safe if those orders were lifted. Most also said they often or always wore face coverings.

The report was based on a survey of more than 2,000 adults nationwide, including separate surveys for residents of New York City and Los Angeles. Researchers found widespread agreement across the country for keeping six feet apart from others, wearing cloth face coverings, and for nonessential workers to stay home, with the strongest support for those measures in Los Angeles and New York, which were hardest hit by the pandemic.

At that time, the first group of states to be pummeled by covid-19 -- New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, Washington, and Michigan -- were past their first peaks and still navigating the ups and downs of a slow and prolonged decline.

Hot spots were still exploding around nursing homes, at meatpacking plants throughout the Midwest, and at prisons in the Southeast. New York was requiring everyone to wear masks in public and still largely shut down. Elsewhere, particularly in the South and Far West, governors were in the process of lifting stay-at-home orders and rescinding restrictions on businesses.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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