In light of new federal guidance adopted by the state, many Marylanders now have a choice to make about whether to wear a mask outside.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control eased guidelines about masking outside for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, saying those who’ve been fully vaccinated can safely ditch face coverings in a variety of specified settings, while those yet to be immunized can forgo masking in limited situations.
Maryland followed suit Wednesday afternoon, with Gov. Larry Hogan immediately adjusting his executive order so that masks are no longer required to be worn outdoors in the state.
Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether you’ll forgo a mask when you head outside:
What are the rules in Maryland?
Anyone regardless of vaccinations status can be outdoors without masks, according to the Republican governor’s new order. However, face coverings remain mandatory at outdoor venues, such as stadiums and amphitheaters.
Hogan’s rules were adopted by all localities in the Baltimore area.
You still have to wear a mask on public transportation, anywhere indoors where the public is generally allowed — restaurants, churches, stores, gyms and salons or barbershops — and in health care facilities, according to Hogan’s executive order. Masks are also required in the workplace, schools and anywhere food is prepared or packaged.
“Although it is no longer a state mandate,” Hogan said, “if you are not yet vaccinated, public health experts strongly recommend that you immediately get vaccinated and that until you do you should continue to be cautious and wear a mask, especially when you cannot be physically distanced.”
CDC’s guidance for masking outdoors
The CDC guidance says it’s OK for both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people to lose the mask exercising outdoors with members of their household.
Small gatherings outside with fully vaccinated family and friends are safe. But if some people are not fully vaccinated, the CDC says the fully vaccinated people can forgo masks while those who aren’t shouldn’t.
As vaccinations curtail virus spread, the CDC’s guidance draws a line between what vaccinated people can do safely and what unvaccinated people shouldn’t do, said said Dr. Chris Beyrer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“They’re not suggesting people who are not immunized change their mask behaviors,” Beyrer said. “It has to be that once you’re fully immunized you can begin to resume activities. If that’s not the guidance, people would rightly think ‘What’s the point of getting vaccines?’ "
While dining at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households sans masking is safe for fully vaccinated people, for example, the CDC says unvaccinated people should wear a mask, though it’s still risky.
Even if you’re vaccinated, the CDC says you should mask up while attending crowded outdoor events like concerts or sports games.
Precautions, like masks, are still crucial indoors
While the CDC says fully vaccinated people can gather with one another indoors without masks or physical distancing, their new guidance doesn’t change previous recommendations that face coverings should be worn for almost all other indoor activities.
It all has to do with ventilation, said Dr. Donald Milton, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.
“This is really an indoor virus and what we’re most concerned about is large indoor gatherings,” Beyrer added.
Milton said a good rule to follow is that touted by Linsey C. Marr, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech University who studies the transmission of infectious disease via aerosols. Marr maintains that you should always follow two of the following three precautions: outside, distance and masking.
If everyone’s vaccinated, Milton said, that should count for two.
Crowds still present risks
There’s just no way to know everyone else in a big crowd and their vaccination status.
“If it’s people you know and you know that they’re vaccinated, that’s safe,” Milton said. “When it gets beyond that right now, there’s enough unvaccinated people around that it’s still somewhat risky.”
Attending a crowded event has been considered among the riskiest behaviors throughout the pandemic.
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“You’re not jogging by somebody, you have people standing behind you shouting and singing and drunk,” Beyrer said. “All of those things increase the risk of exposure.”
Some science to think about
Vaccines are effective in preventing COVID-19 and extremely effective at preventing serious illness and death, the experts said. But just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t contract the coronavirus, they said.
Furthermore, “there’s no way to really know how well the vaccine worked for you,” Milton said.
Scientists have yet to definitively conclude whether you can transmit the virus to others after being completely vaccinated, despite evidence that immunizations limit transmissibility, Beyrer said.
“We think that vaccinated people are less likely to transmit COVID, but we don’t think that it’s impossible,” said Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
Sehgal is the principal investigator for the University of Maryland site of a study being conducted in about 20 colleges and universities and evaluating whether the two-dose vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are effective at preventing virus transmission
“We’ve had to learn as we go and we’re still learning,” Beyrer said. “I think people have to understand that the science is evolving, our knowledge is evolving and so is the virus.”