The United States took a major step towards a return to pre-Covid-19 normality Thursday when the country’s health protection agency issued a new set of guidelines allowing those fully vaccinated to go without marks and social distancing both indoors and outdoors. Vaccination, therefore, will become central to America’s fight against the epidemic now.
President Joe Biden was in the middle of a meeting with Republican senators at the White House when word came of the new rule. And everyone promptly got rid of their masks.
“I think it’s a great milestone. A great day,” Biden said later, claiming credit for it at the same time. “It’s been made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.”
On Capitol Hill, home to US congress, Republican Senators Susan Collins and Joni Ernst removed their masks yelling, “Freedom”.
The US president and the Senators are among the 35.8% of Americans who have been fully vaccinated, a stage reached two weeks after the second dose of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In all, 46.6% have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine. Many more are likely to be added to that number with the rolling out of inoculation of those between 12 and 15 years of age, starting Thursday.
“Fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting,” said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in an update of his guidelines. Exceptions, it added, would be places where they were required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, followed up at a White House briefing. “Anyone who is fully vaccinated, can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” she said, adding, “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Fully vaccinated people will also be able to resume domestic travel and won’t have to test before or after or resort to self-isolation. If travelling abroad, subject to restrictions, they won’t have to test before leaving or quarantine themselves after their return. They will also not have to go for a test following known exposure.
But they will not be exempted from facial covering during travel. CDC said its prevention measures will continue to apply to all travellers, including those vaccinated. All travellers will have to wear a mask on all planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation travelling into, within, or out of the United States and in US transportation hubs such as airports and stations, the agency said.
Though widely welcomed, the CDC’s new guidance faced some pushback. “The CDC has gone from one extreme to another, from over-caution to throwing caution into the wind,” Leana Wen, a health expert who appears on CNN, wrote in a tweet. Eliminating mask mandates and physical distancing without making vaccination mandatory could disincentivise vaccination.
Critics also said that the new guideline could leave a large number of Americans vulnerable to the virus, especially children younger than 12 who are not eligible for Covid-19 inoculation and anti-vaxers, people who are suspicious of all vaccines and won’t get the shots voluntarily.
The CDC had dropped the use of masks outdoors for the fully vaccinated two weeks ago, setting into motion the return to normality. The process was to play out slowly. The Thursday update was unexpected, and it caught even the White House by surprise, and unprepared.
“We feel naked,” First Lady Jill Biden told reporters during a visit to West Virginia, and added, “I didn’t mean it that way!”
Masks and social distancing were introduced a little over a year ago — April 3, 2020 — as part of the Trump administration’s chaotic response to the epidemic. Former President Donald Trump had downplayed the crisis even as cases and fatalities surged; promoted unproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine; and, most famously, recommended household cleaning agents. He also refused stubbornly to abide by mitigation efforts recommended by his own health officials and experts. And his reluctance to use a face covering set off a culture war around masks that continues to this day, with opponents portraying it as a threat to personal freedom.
“Free at last,” said Mitch McConnell, the senior most Republican in the US senate, reacting to the new guideline.