After I finish this blog I am going to go outside and have a little walk. When doing so I will not wear a mask.
To tell you the truth, I’ve been doing this for a while now, ever since my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine kicked in, just to test the waters. My mask is never far from my hand, often just pulled down around my chin, and I still find myself pulling it back up whenever I pass someone else on the sidewalk. But the other day I walked halfway to the train station, bathed in glorious sunlight, with it stuck in the side pocket of my jacket.
Today the CDC declared that this kind of activity was officially safe for fully vaccinated Americans, and that some activities, like running, biking, or walking outdoors, would also be safe to do without a mask even for the unvaccinated.
I think this is a good thing, but like almost every response to the global crisis that has been fed by misinformation, disinformation, and widespread confusion, it also has its downsides.
From a public health perspective, it’s easy to worry that a relaxing in mask guidelines will embolden outright anti-maskers, and trickle down into a general weakening of other restrictions. The CDC didn’t help all of this by publishing a vaguely incoherent color-coded chart indicating what vaxxed and non-vaxxed people can and can’t do safely.
All of this is to say it’s fine to feel conflicted about this. Personal responsibility in the pandemic has long been about managing your risk to yourself and those around you as best you can with the information available. For me, right now that means I feel pretty comfortable, safety-wise, doing pretty much anything without a mask. Transmission and infection rates of vaccinated people are incredibly low, and breakthrough infections are so rare that your risk of dying from one, based on these numbers, is currently about one in a million. I trust the vaccine, and I think it’s good to be able to relax a bit more.
If you still want to wear a mask outside, like many people I know in major metropolitan areas, that’s fine too. There’s obviously no downside to wearing a mask in a global pandemic. But I think it’s good that the CDC is slowly starting to give people definitive guidance on what is and isn’t safe. Research has indicated for months now that the risk of outdoor aerosolized transmission is relatively low — if you’re outdoors and making some attempt to keep your distance from others, you’re probably fine.
We’re not out of this yet by any means — the biggest hurdle now is convincing a reluctant swathe of the population to actually get the vaccine, which the CDC hopes that policies like this will help. “Taking steps toward relaxing certain measures for vaccinated people may help improve coronavirus vaccine acceptance and uptake,” the recent guidelines state. We’ve been so confused and so scared for so long, that despite the risks, an end to the outdoor mask mandate will help me personally breathe a bit easier.