The ever-changing mask guidance has got us all jumbled up again about what’s safe and risky when it comes to hanging out indoors.
The most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that people vaccinated against COVID-19 can lose the mask in most indoor settings, but that unvaccinated people will need to keep their masks up for the time being. Meanwhile, states and counties — even businesses — are updating their own policies, and in some cases completely dropping their mask rules. It’s a lot to unpack.
The most important thing to understand, according to infectious diseases experts, is that much of whether or not you’ll have to wear a mask indoors comes down to your personal risk and what’s going on in your area. Ultimately, each local department of public health will have to make its own decision based on the rate of community transmission. The lower the community transmission is in your town, the less necessary masks will be.
The one thing experts still agree on: If you’re unvaccinated, or even partially vaccinated, you’ll want to hold on to that mask for a bit longer. Vaccinated people have the immunity to shed the mask indoors, but those who are immunocompromised will want to check in with a doctor first.
All that said, here’s a brief guide on masking and un-masking indoors:
Gym Or Fitness Studio
If you’re unvaccinated: You should definitely wear a mask. There’ve been a number of outbreaks traced back to gyms throughout the pandemic. If you’re unvaccinated, masks, distancing and ventilation will help keep you protected while working out.
If you’re partially vaccinated (aka in between doses): Mask up. Though partially vaccinated people have some protection, they should really behave as if they’re unvaccinated until they’ve got that second shot, said Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist at University of California, San Francisco.
If you’re fully vaccinated (aka two weeks out from your last or only dose): The risk of getting infected and spreading the coronavirus to others is super low once you’ve been vaccinated. Recent data from the CDC shows that out of the more than 115 million Americans who’ve been fully vaccinated, there have been just 1,077 symptomatic breakthrough infections — and only a fraction of those people have been hospitalized. Although fully vaccinated people are safe and “do not need to mask for their own risk, the gym will still be requiring masking until the unvaccinated who want a chance to get the vaccine get it,” Gandhi said.
Indoor Bar Or Restaurant
Unvaccinated: Because you have to take off your mask to eat, unvaccinated people might want to think twice before heading inside for a meal, said Laura Hungerford, an epidemiologist and head of the department of population health sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. You’ll be safest if everyone around you — the servers, your friends, people eating near you — are vaccinated or wearing masks, but that can be tough to navigate. “It is much better to make the choice to be vaccinated and go back to a more regular set of activities,” Hungerford said. Until then, mask it is.
Partially vaccinated: Act like you haven’t gotten the vaccine. “People who are partially vaccinated are gradually getting more strongly protected, so they should keep wearing masks until two weeks after their final vaccination — which fortunately will be a short time!” Hungerford said.
Vaccinated: You’re good. Evidence shows the vaccines drastically reduce your ability to spread the infection, so you’ll be safe without a mask. But be polite and wear one when entering/exiting the restaurant and going to the bathroom — other diners and servers don’t know if you’ve been vaxxed or not.
Unvaccinated: You’ll want to mask up at work. Contact tracing data from 2020 found that workplaces were a fairly common source of outbreaks. As more of your colleagues get vaccinated and as local cases decrease, your risk will drop.
Partially vaccinated: Your risk is lower, but you’re not in the clear until you get that second dose. “I would keep these employees masked with the unvaccinated until they are fully vaccinated to move into the unmasked region,” Gandhi said.
Vaccinated: If your colleagues are all vaccinated, there’s no reason for you to wear a mask at work. A tip from Gandhi: “employers should group their employees into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated so that the vaccinated are in a region where no masks or social distancing are needed.”
A Small Indoor Gathering (Like A Dinner Party)
Unvaccinated: If you’re unvaccinated and mingling with other unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people, mask up. If you’re unvaccinated, low risk and hanging out with people who are fully vaccinated, you can safely shed the mask. (Note: vaccinated people are very unlikely to spread COVID-19 to you.)
Partially vaccinated: Stick to the same rules as those who are unvaccinated. “Their risk is even lower than those unvaccinated, but would still behave like you are unvaccinated across all situations,” Gandhi said.
Vaccinated: You can let your guard down. “No masks or distancing necessary in an indoor dinner party if fully vaccinated,” Gandhi said.
Large Indoor Gathering (Like A Wedding Or Church Service)
Unvaccinated: Take your mask. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, recommended a mask for unvaccinated people attending a large indoor gathering. As more people get vaccinated and as population immunity builds, we likely won’t see the same kind of superspreader events we saw last year — but you can still contract or spread the infection if you’re around a lot of people indoors. Especially if cases are high in your area.
Partially vaccinated: Adalja has the same advice for people who’ve gotten just one dose: wear a mask. It’s the safest route for you and for others.
Vaccinated: You’re good to do this mask-free. “I do not think a fully vaccinated person needs to wear a mask as they are at very low risk of breakthrough infection and even less at risk of being a spreader of infection,” Adalja said.
Unvaccinated: If you go, wear a mask, Adalja said. Movie theaters run the risk of being crowded, poorly ventilated, indoor spaces — an ideal setting for COVID to spread amongst unvaccinated people.
Partially vaccinated: Same rules: bring your mask. Just a few more weeks until you can safely ditch the mask in certain places.
Vaccinated: Though the theater itself may have mask rules in place, your risk of getting or spreading COVID is so low, so you’ll be safe if your mask is off as you work through a tub of popcorn.
Concert, Theater Performance Or Comedy Show
Unvaccinated: Definitely wear a mask, especially if others are singing, shouting or laughing. Doing so “will protect them if there is someone present with COVID and will keep them from getting the virus and then unknowingly spreading it to someone they care about,” Hungerford said.
Partially Vaccinated: Stick with the mask until you’re fully vaxxed.
Vaccinated: If the venue is OK with it, you can pull down the mask. Study after study has shown us that very few vaccinated people get infected — and those who do tend not to get very sick or be infectious.
The long and short of it: pay attention to your local guidance. If you’re unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, the safest thing to do is wear a face mask when spending time indoors with others who might also not be immune.
Vaccinated people, for the most part, are well protected — mask or no mask. Even if it feels pretty weird to start living life again sans mask, it’ll feel more normal with time. Be considerate of others who could still be at risk and know deep down you’ve got the protection to start living life again.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.