Over the last year, the public has considered the outdoors their sanctuary. In the era of social distancing, it was often the only place to exercise during lockdowns or gather with people in carefully spaced-out lawn chairs. And as evidence accumulated that the risk of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is low, many people felt free to also take off their masks and let down their guards.
Still, people’s interpretation of what it’s safe to do without a mask on has ranged widely. While one neighbor was convinced that going to an outdoor bar was perfectly fine, another routinely masked up while walking the dog.
Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines in an attempt to clarify what activities are safe in the fresh air. The verdict: Vaccinated people can take off their masks at small outdoor gatherings or when eating al fresco with vaccinated and unvaccinated friends.
"Generally, for vaccinated people, outdoor activities without a mask are safe,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing on Tuesday. “However, we continue to recommend masking in crowded outdoor settings and venues, such as packed stadiums and concerts where there is decreased ability to maintain physical distance and where many unvaccinated people may also be present.”
The new outdoor guidance is the latest addition to expanded freedoms for the vaccinated. Last month the CDC announced that fully immunized people can safely gather indoors mask-free with other protected people. The most recent vaccination figures show that 29 percent of Americans are now fully vaccinated, and 43 percent have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Yet the announcement also comes at a time when there’s little public health consensus about coronavirus safety measures: Only about half of states have broad indoor-outdoor mask mandates, and a growing number are doing away with any requirements at all.
“This is a thoughtful next step on to how to further calibrate one’s behavior outdoors,” says Jewel Mullen, associate dean for health equity at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. Earlier CDC guidance gave people the green light to exercise outside, with the caveat of advising people to put their masks back on if they came into contact with others who were less than six feet apart.
“There are a lot of people who are trying to be very thoughtful about how to wear masks, and they’re often second-guessing themselves because they wish had more clarity,” says Mullen. She says that the new recommendations can give confidence to people who want to do the right thing to protect themselves and others.
Relaxing COVID-19 restrictions alters risk perception
Yet some experts who study people’s pandemic behavior say they’re worried such well-intentioned guidance could ultimately backfire. That’s because unlike a carefully vetted holiday dinner guest list, it’s impossible to know who’s vaccinated and who’s not in the great outdoors. And some unvaccinated people might then interpret overall reduced mask-wearing as a license to go mask-free.
“By changing the CDC guidelines to be less strict among the vaccinated, they’re decreasing risk perception among everyone,” says Kaileigh Byrne, a Clemson University psychologist who studies how individuals decide whether to comply with coronavirus restrictions. “Unvaccinated people who are risk-takers and prefer immediate gratification won’t distinguish between who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” she says. “They think, That person is doing something fun. If it’s okay for them, it’s okay for me.”
The phenomenon is called “social norming,” and it drives a lot of human behavior, says Tobias Reynolds-Tylus, a communication researcher who studies health campaigns at James Madison University in Virginia.
“Seeing fewer people wearing masks may result in individuals who are unvaccinated feeling as if they do not need to wear a mask themselves. Social pressure for mask wearing will undoubtedly decrease,” he says.
In that light, the timing of the CDC’s announcement comes at the absolute worst point in the pandemic, adds Steven Taylor, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who studies people’s risk perception during pandemics. That’s because many people are sick of COVID-19 restrictions, and they might not be receptive to another set of government guidelines, especially nuanced ones that make distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
“The concern is that the more you change guidelines, the more you confuse people. If you take people with pandemic fatigue, it’s going to annoy them further,” he says. “The more complex you make things, the lower the adherence. In an ideal world, you need to keep it super-simple and make it constant.”
But for all the possible confusion, the new guidance undoubtedly will give much-needed reassurance to those people who’ve been in a holding pattern since the beginning of the pandemic and who could greatly benefit from the psychological boost of some summertime sun.
“The message is a positive one for vaccinated people,” says Bryne, “and gives them the opportunity to feel safe doing things they didn’t do before.”