The implementation of this carries some obvious challenges, though. Chief among them: Won’t this just free up unvaccinated people to also not wear masks? Even if verifying vaccination status weren’t such a thorny issue (vaccine passports), it’s completely impractical to do so in everyday public interactions.
The most important thing for the vaccinated to know is that, according to the CDC, they don’t have to worry.
But as with getting vaccinated, it’s not just about you; it’s also about stopping the spread of the virus in the broader society. Freeing up the unverifiable unvaccinated to blend in with their vaccinated neighbors by taking off their masks could allow them to more easily spread the disease among themselves. That could, in turn, make it more difficult to stamp out the virus. People have been talking about this in terms of whether the unvaccinated will simply “lie” about their status, but they won’t really even have to do that; they can just take off their masks.
So how much are they likely to do that?
Polling before the CDC’s decision was announced suggests it’s quite likely that a huge number of them will. And not only that, but unvaccinated people are also more likely to engage in riskier activities, in large part because they don’t take the virus as seriously as those who have sought inoculation.
An Economist/YouGov poll released last week showed that 63 percent of Americans who said they didn’t plan to get vaccinated said they felt at least “somewhat” safe socializing indoors with other unvaccinated people without a mask. That compared with just 36 percent of people who had received at least one dose. In others words, the people who were much more protected were still more reluctant. (It seems likely the latter number will rise in the coming weeks, based on the new CDC guidance).
It also suggests nearly two-thirds of those who won’t get vaccinated are rather prepared to venture out into society and interact with other people who might or might not be vaccinated. The mask mandates provided a measure of social and even legal pressure for them to mask up while engaging in those activities. But with many or most of those mandates now being repealed and it being impossible to know who’s vaccinated, they’re now seemingly freed up to do something they already believed was safe.
It’s theoretically possible some or even many of them will abide by the guidance and still wear a mask. An Axios/Ipsos poll last week showed around half of unvaccinated people say they wear a mask at all times when leaving their home. That’s a pretty good analog for those who take the guidance more seriously, given that went beyond the guidance at the time. But that group includes people who are unvaccinated but don’t necessarily say they won’t get vaccinated at some point — i.e., it’s a broader group than the longer-term potential spreaders of the virus.
And it’s been clear for a long time that there is much overlap between vaccine skepticism and mask skepticism. As more and more Americans get vaccinated and follow the guidance by de-masking, social pressure could work in the opposite direction. Unvaccinated people might even be okay with masking, but might not want to send a suddenly more conspicuous public signal that will lead others to think they are either (a) unvaccinated, or (b) some kind of virtue-signaling covid panicked — the latter being a potentially worse fate for many of them.
That same Ipsos poll also showed that a previous (and more limited) relaxing of the CDC masking guidance led to a significant increase in unvaccinated people taking off their masks. While on April 19, 23 percent of unvaccinated people said they either “never” or only “occasionally” wore a mask, the number rose to 34 percent by May 3.
That increase came despite the guidance not really applying to them; it was that vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks outdoors. It thus seems likely the number will rise even more significantly now.
The question from there is how much of a problem that could pose. Again, the CDC says it’s not a problem for vaccinated people, because they’re protected. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for society more broadly if it allows the virus to spread more freely in the unvaccinated population.
The solution seems, as it has been, to make that group of unvaccinated people as small as possible. Ideally, many of those people will see the relaxing of mask mandates as an incentive to get vaccinated to free themselves up. Maybe this will help them see the finish line. But it also boils down to a private decision that their neighbors will likely never know about — to get something many of them already doubt is safe and/or terribly necessary.