As new COVID-19 cases fall in much of the United States, governors in many states that have mask requirements are announcing that they will begin to ease those mandates in the coming weeks.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, D, said a mask-or-vaccine mandate for indoor businesses would expire on Thursday. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, said the state’s indoor mask mandate will end Feb. 15, though unvaccinated people will still be required to wear masks indoors. State officials in Illinois and Rhode Island said mask requirements for public indoor places would soon be lifted, while numerous others said they will drop mask mandates in schools.
The growing list reflects a transition moment in a country where state leaders appear eager to find a new normal — but advice from health officials remains confusing for many. Many health professionals, including officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are advising people to keep wearing masks.
“We continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday. “That’s much of the country right now, in public indoor settings.” The White House urged Americans to follow the CDC’s guidelines.
The recent state announcements underscore a transition to a “stage where we’re allowing people to make more individual choices,” said Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.
Should you still wear a mask, even if it’s no longer required in your state? Here’s what public health experts recommend to keep in mind as you make that decision.
— Why are some states dropping mandates now?
Multiple governors who have announced eased mandates in recent days cited declining infection and hospitalization numbers, as well as high vaccination rates.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for — tremendous progress after two long years,” Hochul said, noting the mask-or-vaccinate requirement for businesses was an “emergency temporary measure put in place literally two months ago.”
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D, said that “thanks to precautions our residents have taken … the heightened emergency of omicron has been consistently subsiding.” He announced that the indoor mask mandate would lift on Feb. 28 “if these trends continue, and we expect them to.”
States are not following a uniform rubric for deciding at what point to drop masking. In some cases, Wachter said, restrictions are being lifted even as “the science would say that levels are still high and risk of infection is still higher than it should be to allow widespread absence of masking.”
He added that officials may be looking to follow through on promises regarding pandemic policies to preserve credibility and build public trust.
For example, if officials pledged to lift restrictions as cases and hospitalizations improved but did not follow through, “it would be harder to then say to them, six months from now, ‘There is a new variant. It’s time to put the masks back on’ — if that’s what happened.”
— What should I consider when deciding whether to go maskless?
There are a few main things that Robert Murphy, professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said he would consider before deciding to leave a mask at home.
First, the environment you are entering: How big is the space? Will it be crowded? How well ventilated is it?
“If it’s a crowded indoor venue where I don’t know the vaccination status of the folks around me, I’m likely going to wear a mask for the time being,” said David Souleles, University of California at Irvine’s COVID-19 response team director.
Another consideration is your health. Are you a young person with no underlying medical conditions? If so, it may be less risky to go without a mask. If you are slightly older and suffer from a chronic disease, experts say the risk is higher to go without a mask.
Lastly, several experts said, take a look at the rate of infection in your community as well as the levels of vaccination. The CDC COVID data tracker rates the levels of community transmission for every state and county as low, moderate, substantial or high.
“If there’s still a fair amount of virus being transmitted, I think for many people who are inclined to be careful, they may not choose to let their guard down,” Wachter said.
But even in areas of high transmission, he added, whether to wear a mask is “situationally dependent.”
“If it’s crowded and you don’t know the vaccination status of others and you’re in close proximity for extended periods of time,” he said, “it’s probably still a good thing to think about masking.”
The most critical tool for protecting against the virus, many stressed, is getting vaccinated.
“You want to throw your mask away? You’re tired of wearing the mask?” Murphy said. “Then get vaccinated, get boosted and go have fun — especially when the rates go down.”
Souleles described “layers of protection” that help protect against the virus and said the “strongest layer is our vaccination layer.”
“Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate, boost, boost, boost,” he said. “It’s really a pivotal strategy that will help us get to a point where some of these other mitigation strategies will be less and less important.”
— What should I do if I’m immunocompromised, otherwise high-risk or live with someone who is vulnerable?
Individuals who are immunocompromised or at higher risk for severe COVID “absolutely should consider masking until COVID is at a really low level if not nonexistent in their specific community,” said Philip Chan, Brown University associate professor of medicine. Those who care for people who are immunocompromised or high-risk should consider the same, he said.
Earlier in the pandemic, Souleles said, a line of thinking around masking was that the mask-wearer was covering up largely to protect the people around them.
As more research has emerged, and as more people opt for higher-quality masks, it’s clearer that “my mask is protecting me as well as protecting you,” he said.
For those who are concerned because they are high-risk, or live with someone who is vulnerable, “wearing a high-quality mask provides some level of protection and is useful for peace of mind.”
— Are there high-risk places where I should keep masking regardless of mandates?
“For larger indoor public gatherings at this exact point in time, it still makes sense to mask and take some precautions,” Chan said. It’s a good idea to wear masks at concerts, indoor sporting events and other “really highly crowded and indoor” gatherings, including where people may be traveling from many different places, he said.
Wachter said he thinks it’s reasonable to continue to wear masks “on public transit, where people are forced into closed spaces for long periods of time.”
Even in a supermarket, it can still be a good idea to wear a mask, he said. He described masking up in a grocery store in a place where it was not required.
“I went to go shopping this morning and there was almost nobody in the supermarket who was wearing a mask, but I was,” he said. “I still think it’s reasonable to do it … I know I can protect myself by wearing one.”
— Could we soon reach a point where masking is of little or no concern?
“I do think there’s a point in time where we will not need to mask at all,” Chan said, stressing that it will need to be “based on community rates.”
“When the rate of COVID in the community is low or nonexistent, then of course people don’t have to mask,” he said. He added there may be times, if COVID surges and peaks again, that “we may need to mask again indoors.”
“This is part of learning to live with this, and also part of learning to continue to carry out our daily lives — continue to work, play, learn — while living with the virus,” he said.
Wachter, describing himself as someone “who has tended toward the cautious side,” said he will “carry a mask and continue to put it on in situations that feel riskier — like a very crowded space, on a train or bus — for years.” Though he added that may not last forever.
“If I get to the point where I list my top 10 worries in life and it’s not on the list, then I probably will forget the mask a couple of days,” he said.