Let’s first address the easy questions. The latest guidance on outdoor masking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is fine, but it doesn’t go far enough. You shouldn’t need to wear a mask outside, period.
The risk of transmission outside is extraordinarily low. Why? Because of unlimited ventilation, exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun, plenty of space and transient interactions. Even if transmission does occur, there are no superspreading events, which can only happen when the breath of one infectious person reaches the lungs of every other person in a confined space. That can’t happen outdoors.
If you want to continue to wear a mask outdoors, by all means you should. And absolutely no one should harass someone else for wearing a mask outdoors — or anywhere, for that matter. If you’re unvaccinated, standing a few extra feet from someone is still a good idea.
The other easy question: What can you do after you’re vaccinated? Whatever you feel comfortable doing. The vaccines severely limit infection, erase risk of death and stop you from spreading to others. Yes, they are not perfect, and yes, there is the extremely small chance of reinfection with mild consequences. So this comes down to a question of personal risk tolerance. So again, do whatever you feel comfortable doing.
Now the hard questions: indoor masks and kids.
The medical science says that if you’re vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask indoors for the same reasons above. The risk to yourself and others is low.
Social science tells us something different. In this interim phase, as vaccinations go up and cases come down, the right thing to do is wear masks indoors in public spaces until every adult has had a fair and equitable chance to be vaccinated — likely around June 1. It takes about 30 days for people to be fully vaccinated and for full protection to kick in. That means it’s reasonable to expect that we will be able to ditch indoor mask mandates by July 4. Independence Day. Seems fitting.
To be clear, the risk is still high for unvaccinated adults, so they should continue to wear a mask indoors even after July 4. And businesses may continue to require masks, either because of their own risk calculus or out of concern about perceptions and expectations of their workers and customers. That’s fine.
As for kids, they don’t need to wear a mask outside starting right now, and, after this school year is over, they shouldn’t have to wear masks inside either. Why? Their risks of getting infected are lower than adults, and it will get even lower as the vast majority of adults are vaccinated. Consider what’s happened in Israel, where more than 60 percent of adults are vaccinated. No kids under 16 have been vaccinated there, yet cases in kids have dropped 98 percent since January.
While kids can get the virus, and there are some tragic instances of kids dying, this is mercifully very rare. Data from the United States, Britain, South Korea, France and Spain all show the same thing: The risk of death for kids under 19 is about one in a million. For perspective, teenagers in the United States are 10 times more likely to die from suicide.
The truth is, for kids, covid-19 is like the flu, and we don’t make kids wear masks in school for that. (We do encourage them to get an annual vaccination, so we should do the same when the vaccines for covid-19 are ready for young kids, too.)
The reality is that the United States is entering into a new phase of the pandemic, in which decisions about things such as masking outdoors and going to a restaurant shift from being a debate about public risk to individual risk. Last year, we were struggling to protect the most vulnerable, and there was a risk of health-care systems collapsing, so we needed mask rules and top-down restrictions on what we could and couldn’t do. But, thanks to vaccines, we now can protect the most vulnerable, and overall community risk is dropping fast. The burden of decision-making about risks thus should move from the government to businesses and individuals.
Updating guidance is not an admission that past guidance was flawed; it’s good scientific practice to change recommendations based on new information. The new information is that vaccines are winning the race against the variants in the United States. Our guidance should change accordingly. And if things turn for the worse unexpectedly, we should be prepared to reinstitute more strict controls. There are no absolutes in a pandemic.