Fully vaccinated Americans can now safely shed their masks and skip social distancing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week, sparking a flurry of questions about how the new guidelines will be implemented at businesses, schools, and other places where fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people mingle.
“We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Thursday. “Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”
The CDC’s recommendations are guidance — not a mandate — and it’s up to states whether to adhere to them.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Friday that Michigan will follow the federal recommendations, announcing that as of Saturday morning anyone who is fully vaccinated can shed their masks in public — both indoors and outdoors.
Here’s what it all means.
What does the CDC guidance say?
MASKS AND SOCIAL DISTANCING: Fully vaccinated people can go out — even in crowds — without wearing a mask or social distancing and “resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic,” the CDC says.
You can take off your mask in most places, indoor and outdoor, though there are exceptions. At hospitals and other health care settings, mask requirements still apply to staff, patients and visitors, no matter the person’s vaccination status.
The same goes for when you’re using public transportation such as planes, trains and buses, and at prisons, jails and homeless shelters.
Businesses, libraries, and other establishments also can require you to wear masks even if you’ve been vaccinated, and can still ask you to maintain up to six feet of social distance at their discretion.
TRAVEL: Planning to take a summer vacation? If you’re fully vaccinated and traveling in the U.S., you do not need to get a COVID-19 test before or after you go on your trip or self-quarantine afterward.
If fully vaccinated people are planning international travel, the CDC says you should check in advance to learn the travel requirements for your destination. Unless the destination country requires a negative COVID-19 test, you do not need a test before you go. However, before you can board an international flight to return to the U.S., you will still need to show a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of recovery from the virus.
International travelers who are fully vaccinated do not need to self-quarantine after arriving in the U.S.; however, the CDC recommends a COVID-19 test three to five days after returning.
COVID-19 EXPOSURE: If you’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 and you are fully vaccinated, the CDC says you no longer need to quarantine or get tested unless you develop symptoms.
Exceptions are fully vaccinated people who work in a correctional or detention facility or a homeless shelter and are exposed to someone with COVID-19. They should still get tested, even they don’t have symptoms.
What does the new Michigan public health order say about masks?
Although Whitmer announced Friday morning that Michigan would repeal the mask mandate for fully vaccinated people starting Saturday, her office had not released official language for the updated order until late Friday night.
It requires all unvaccinated Michiganders to wear a face mask when gathering indoors, but includes exceptions for children younger than 2 and for people who cannot medically tolerate a mask. Other exceptions include instances when people are:
- Eating or drinking while seated in a designated area or at a private residence
- Receiving a medical or personal care service for which removal of the face mask is necessary
- Asked to temporarily remove a face mask for identification purposes
- Communicating with someone who is deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing and whose ability to see the mouth is essential to communication
- Actively engaged in a public safety role, including but not limited to law enforcement, firefighters, or emergency medical personnel, and where wearing a face mask would seriously interfere in the performance of their public safety responsibilities
- Engaging in a religious service
- Giving a speech for broadcast or to an audience as long as the audience is at least 12 feet away from the speaker
- Engaging in an activity that requires removal of a mask not listed in another part of this section, and are in a facility that provides ventilation that meets or exceeds 60 ft3/min of outdoor airflow per person.
The new mandate requires businesses, offices, schools, organized events “or other operation(s)” to prohibit indoor gatherings unless there is a “good faith effort” to ensure everyone, including employees, comply with the mandate.
The order remains in effect through 11:59 p.m. May 31.
Do masks need to be worn while playing sports?
Starting 9 a.m. Saturday, no masks will be required for outdoor sports — regardless of a person’s vaccination status.
For indoor sports, those who are not fully vaccinated or meet other exceptions listed above will be required to wear a mask.
COVID-19 testing requirements still apply to athletes ages 13-19.
How will people know who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t?
For the most part, you won’t.
“It’s impossible in terms of a business and its customers,” said Peter Jacobson, professor emeritus of health law and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “There’s no way to know. We’re not carrying around our vaccination cards. We don’t have a scarlet V on our foreheads.”
That could make the weeks ahead pretty messy, said Lance Gable, an associate professor at the Wayne State University Law School.
“It’s going to create a real challenge for a lot of people because you don’t know that the person who comes into your business or the person you see on the street … whether they’ve been vaccinated or not,” Gable said.
For families with kids who are not yet eligible for vaccines, for people who have compromised immune systems, it’s a tricky time to be out in the world.
“They’re not going to know if the person walking next to them or the person who is in the grocery line with them is not wearing a mask because they’re vaccinated and are safe or because they’re refusing to wear a mask and are not vaccinated and therefore pose a risk,” he said. “It creates a lot of complexity, and … I think it’s going to raise some some significant problems.”
People could become confrontational.
“I think we can predict what’s going to happen,” said Jacobson, who also is the co-director of the Mid-States Region Network of Public Health Law. “There’s the potential for violence, a lot of belligerence.”
Can businesses still enforce mask wearing?
“Private businesses can still decide that they want to keep the mask requirements in place; they’re still permitted to do that” even for fully vaccinated people, Gable said.
“It’s going to be really difficult for them to tell who is not wearing their masks because their fully vaccinated and who is not wearing their masks because they are just opposed to wearing a mask and, maybe, still posing a risk of spreading the disease to other people.”
Kroger announced Thursday that customers will still be required to wear masks in all of its stores. The company also is offering $100 to employees who take the vaccine. Other major retailers that will continue requiring masks include Starbucks, Target and CVS.
Others, such as Trader Joe’s and Walmart, are letting go of the mask requirements. And the Detroit Tigers announced via Twitter Friday that fans won’t have to wear masks outside at Comerica Park or when in their seats.
What about other public places? Can they still require masks for vaccinated people?
Yes. Every state court in Michigan is still mandating masks for employees and visitors, according to a memo released Friday from the state court administrator.
Court Administrator Thomas P. Boyd acknowledged state COVID-19 trends are improving and the CDC guidance would allow people who are vaccinated to not wear masks. But “such advice, in the absence of any way to identify who is vaccinated and who is not, creates an unacceptable level of risk.”
Every court has different rules about exceptions to the mask rule. Check this list for more information on your local court.
Can business owners require employees to disclose their vaccination status?
“The simple answer, from a management standpoint, is you can definitely ask your employees” about their vaccination status, Jacobson said.
“Certainly, the employers can ask about vaccination and ask for proof of vaccination to ensure that the employer is properly following CDC guidelines and to protect other employees and the general public. There’s no other way to know.”
Can businesses require workers to get COVID-19 vaccines?
Yes, they can. “There is nothing in the law that prevents,” companies from mandating COVID-19 vaccines, Jacobson said. But if a company does require workers to be vaccinated, it could be sued.
“It hasn’t been challenged yet” in the courts, Jacobson said.
Already, some companies require workers to get the annual flu vaccine. But with COVID-19 vaccines being so new, he said, “I think the legal issue is going to be whether or not you consider the vaccines experimental.”
All three coronavirus vaccines in use in the U.S. have emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. They haven’t yet won full federal approval.
For that reason, Jacobson said, he knows of no company that mandates employees to take the COVID-19 vaccines — yet.
That may change soon.
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said in a CNN interview this week that any new employees the company hires must be fully vaccinated. Some colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan, have enacted policies that require immunization for students who want to live in on-campus housing.
It’s likely other companies, including hospital systems and others in the health care industry, could follow suit.
However, businesses that mandate vaccines might have to provide flexibility to workers who ask for exemptions or accommodations because of underlying health issues or religious objections, Gable said.
“There are going to be some employers who, because of the nature of the workspace, may have a stronger argument that mandatory vaccination is essential,” Gable said. “Health care employers might be able to enforce that more rigorously because they can justify the value of having the protection for vulnerable patients.
“And so what they might be able to say is a person who refuses to get a vaccine or is unable to get a vaccine may not be able to work in a setting where they’re exposed to particularly vulnerable people, for example, people who are immunosuppressed.”
Who qualifies as fully vaccinated?
People are considered fully vaccinated if:
- Two weeks have passed since the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna coronavirus vaccines.
- Or two weeks after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine.
However, the CDC notes that for people who take immune-weakening medications or who have health conditions that weaken the immune system, they may not be completely protected from the virus even after they’ve been fully vaccinated.
For those people, the CDC suggests talking to a health care provider about the best ways to stay safe from COVID-19.
Should families with young children take off their masks in public?
Joshua Petrie, an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said it might be a “bit early” to lift mask-wearing requirements. That’s especially true if you have family members who are vulnerable, such as young children who aren’t yet eligible for vaccines or loved ones with compromised immune systems.
“The science does tell you that the vaccinated people are protected, but … it kind of gets back to what is the right message for the overall public? To me, it is still: You should still be cautious and if that means continuing to wear a mask even as the vaccinated person to give yourself a sense of safety as well as other people around you, I think that’s a great thing to be doing,” he said.
“I think giving people a clear message: If they’re vaccinated, they’re protected and people around them are protected, that’s all good. Where it gets complicated is probably in states like Michigan. We’ve been in a decline for at least a month now, but we’re still at fairly high case levels.
“People should continue to be pretty cautious because we do have high case levels, especially people who are unvaccinated. And so keeping that sense of caution, I think, is helpful certainly for people who are working at restaurants or in the public or wherever … you don’t know who is vaccinated and who is not.”
While children don’t typically get severe cases of COVID-19, they sometimes can get extremely ill. Others can go on to develop a condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome-children (MIS-C) or have long-term complications even if they had a mild case of coronavirus initially.
“Children are … getting infected, and a small percentage of them are requiring hospitalization and a smaller percentage of them are ending up in the ICU (intensive care unit) and some of those patients have MIS-C,” said Dr. Rudolph Valentini, a pediatric nephrologist at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and group chief medical officer for the Detroit Medical Center.
“If you have two teenagers and a 7-year-old, get the teenagers vaccinated and when the 7-year-old has the green light to get vaccinated, do the same.”
Until vaccines are authorized for use in younger children, which could come as soon as this fall, Valentini said: “Your 7-year-old will be vulnerable to get the infection. Your 7-year-old will be vulnerable to transmit the infection, but if the rest of the family is vaccinated, all of those folks will be protected both ways. They’ll be protected against getting the infection and they’ll be protected against transmitting the infection. So it sort of breaks the cycle.”
How close are we to herd immunity?
Public health experts don’t agree about what vaccination threshold the nation needs to reach to get to a place where the risk of spreading COVID-19 drops to a level where vulnerable people are protected.
Some have suggested getting 70% of the population vaccinated would be enough. Others have said that with more contagious variant strains of the virus circulating, that percentage might need to be higher.
As of Friday, 36.2% of the total U.S. population was fully vaccinated and 46.8% have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC. In Michigan, 37% of the total population is fully vaccinated and 45.1% have had at least one dose.
But the outlook is better than that, Jacobson said.
“You have to consider not just number of people who are fully vaccinated, but those who have had one shot,” he said, “because we know that after two weeks of getting either a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, you’re about 80% protected, which is pretty good in its own right.”
State health officials are using data from the CDC to tie first-dose vaccination rates among residents 16 and older to easing COVID-19 restrictions. When the rate is calculated using the population 16 and older in Michigan, 55.7% have had at least one dose as of Friday.
“Second, you have to take into account those who already have had COVID
or tested positive,” Jacobson said. “They need to be counted toward herd immunity.”
That number is harder to deduce because not everyone who’s had the virus has been tested. As of Friday, the state health department reported 873,335 Michiganders have had confirmed cases of the virus since the pandemic began.
Free Press staff writers Chanel Stitt, Susan Selasky, Nour Rahal and Frank Witsil contributed to this story.
Contact Kristen Shamus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.