Does It Matter If Unvaccinated People Stop Wearing Masks, Too?

·6 min read

People are celebrating a new phase of the pandemic following the release of new mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The announcement, which came Thursday, states that people who are fully vaccinated from COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks in indoor and outdoor settings, barring some exceptions. Nature is healing. We can start sharing our beautiful faces with the world again!

Of course, with a new stage of the U.S. pandemic response also comes skepticism and concern from people who are worried about what will happen next. Some have expressed concern that unvaccinated people will lie about being vaccinated in order to remove their masks in public, putting others — especially other unvaccinated people — at risk. Currently, there isn’t really an ethical way to verify someone’s vaccination status, and it would be hard to implement such a process, anyway. 

However, epidemiologists believe that this is simply the next phase in bringing the pandemic to an end. According to Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, scientific guidance around removing masks is necessary right now because it “reiterates confidence in vaccination efficacy and overall management of the pandemic.” In other words, the CDC’s recommendations help demonstrate that the COVID-19 vaccines really do work, and are helping slow the spread of the virus.

ATLANTA, GA – MAY 08: A full capacity crowd was on hand for the Saturday night MLB game between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies on May 8, 2021 at Truist Field in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA – MAY 08: A full capacity crowd was on hand for the Saturday night MLB game between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies on May 8, 2021 at Truist Field in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“But the concern for many is that we still have a lot of cases in the U.S. Only 35% of the population is fully vaccinated, there is global vaccine inequity, new variants, and truly operationalizing this new guidance is hard,” Dr. Popescu tells Refinery29.

So what does this all mean? At the end of the day, people who are fully vaccinated are well-protected from contracting the virus, even if they’re in close proximity to someone who hasn’t yet received the vaccine and decides to jump on the maskless bandwagon. If they do contract COVID-19, they’re very unlikely to develop a severe case. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s fine for unvaccinated people to start disregarding mask-wearing. The people who would be most affected by unvaccinated people ditching their masks are other people who haven’t yet received a vaccine — and that’s a lot of people. As Dr. Popescu said, currently only one-third of Americans have been fully vaccinated. And the amount of new vaccinations administered each day has decreased by 38% across the country since mid-April, The New York Times reports. Some worry that this lag in immunization rates in some parts of the country may lead to another wave of the deadly virus over the summer, especially if an increasing number of unvaccinated people decide to begin going maskless indoors.

Of course, it’s possible that at least some of the people who’ve decided not to get vaccinated have done so because they previously contracted and recovered from COVID-19, and they believe their natural immunity is enough to protect them going forward. But while it’s true that there does appear to be a period of natural resistance to the virus in recovered people, experts still don’t know how strong that immunity is and how long it lasts. This is why even those who have recovered from the virus are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, and why the new guidelines about going maskless indoors only apply to fully vaccinated people.

Complicating matters is the fact that there seems to be no easy way to enforce these looser mask recommendations. Making sure everyone wears masks indoors is simple; making sure only certain groups continue to do so is much harder. “Right now, many local communities are working to understand how they can apply [the new mask guidelines] without removing all safety measures,” Dr. Popescu says. “I do think there is concern that this would require businesses and workplaces to view or verify or track vaccination status and develop protocols for that, which can be difficult.”

Ultimately, it’s likely that many people, even those who have already been vaccinated, will continue to wear a mask in public settings, especially indoors, as a precaution. Likewise, people who have been skeptical of masks and vaccines all along will probably continue to be. An Economist/YouGov poll that was taken before the CDC’s announcement shows exactly that trend: 63% of people who said they had no plans of getting a vaccine said they felt “somewhat” safe socializing maskless indoors with other unvaccinated people. On the other hand, only 36% of people who’ve received at least one dose of a vaccine said the same. People who haven’t completely rejected the vaccine and are either waiting to receive it or still making a decision about it were also less sure of the safety of socializing without a mask. 

“Ultimately, I believe it’s important to communicate that while this guidance applies to those fully vaccinated, you can still wear a mask based off your risk tolerance and that if people are wearing masks, you shouldn’t make assumptions regarding vaccination status,” Dr. Popescu says. That’s especially important to know if you aren’t fully vaccinated yet. Continue to wear your mask, steer clear of indoor, public spaces as much as possible, and socially distance when you are in public spots in order to reduce your chances of contracting the virus and to avoid contributing to the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

And if you’ve been waiting to get your shots, this should be your sign to grab an appointment. Ideally, the new no-mask guidelines would offer an incentive for anyone on the fence about whether or not to get vaccinated. It presents a future in which people no longer need to wear masks, and can get back to their loved ones and community in a more intimate, and safer, way. 

If that’s not enough motivation — and unfortunately for some, it might not be — there are other incentives, as well. State and local governments are offering free tickets to sporting events to get people vaccinated, as well as gift cards and savings bonds. Bars are offering free alcohol and food, along with a first dose of the vaccine in some cases. In Ohio, five vaccinated residents will receive a million dollars each. And who wouldn’t want a million dollars and immunity from a deadly virus?

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