Joe Biden has told fully vaccinated Americans they can go outdoors without a face mask, except in big crowds, as he attempts to steer a lockdown-weary nation back towards normality.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the president used the bully pulpit of the White House to assure the public science shows the risk of coronavirus infection is very low for vaccinated people in outdoor spaces.
“Starting today, if you’re fully vaccinated and you’re outdoors and not in a big crowd, you no longer need to wear a mask,” said Biden, beside a tree and lawn, in warm spring sunshine.
“I want to be absolutely clear. If you’re in a crowd, like a stadium or at a conference or a concert, you still need to wear a mask, even if you’re outside. But beginning today, gathering with a group of friends in a park, going for a picnic as long as you are vaccinated and outdoors, you can do it without a mask.”
Biden was speaking a year to the week since his predecessor, Donald Trump, floated the idea of injecting disinfectant as a cure for the virus. The current president has instead promised to follow the science, in particular the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while shrugging off rightwing criticism that he is slow to lift restrictions.
He added: “The CDC is able to make this announcement because our scientists are convinced by the data that the odds of getting or giving the virus to others is very, very low if you’re both fully vaccinated and out in the open air.”
Biden also hailed the “stunning progress” the US has made against the virus since he took office on 20 January, with 215m vaccine shots administered and cases and deaths “down dramatically”. Two thirds of elderly people are now fully vaccinated, he said, resulting in an 80% drop in deaths and 70% drop in hospitalisations among that group.
The president urged hesitant Americans to get their shot as soon as possible.
“Don’t let up now,” he said. “Keep following the guidance. Go get your vaccination now.”
Biden put on his trademark sunglasses and began to walk away, but then took a few questions from reporters and promised to help coronavirus-ravaged India. It is the US’s “intention” to send vaccinations to that country, he said.
The new CDC guidance is the latest careful step on the road to recovery from a pandemic that has killed more than 570,000 in the US, the highest toll in the world. It is also recognition of changing behaviour on the ground: 15 governors have reportedly allowed state orders requiring people to wear face coverings in public to expire.
The guidance says fully vaccinated Americans can go outdoors without a mask for activities such as walking, running, hiking or biking, but should still mask up in a big crowd of strangers.
They can also engage in outdoor physical activities alone or with members of their household, dine at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households and attend a small outdoor gathering with both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
But the CDC still wants vaccinated individuals to wear masks at live performances, spectator sports and other crowded outdoor events, as well as in indoor spaces such as a hairdressers, cinemas, museums, shopping malls and full-capacity services at houses of worship.
The guidance defines fully vaccinated as two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. More than half of US adults have had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, and more than a third have been fully vaccinated.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, told a press briefing on Tuesday: “If you are fully vaccinated and want to attend a small outdoor gathering with people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, or dine at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households, the science shows if you are vaccinated, you can do so safely unmasked.
“Generally, for vaccinated people, outdoor activities without a mask are safe. 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. We will continue to recommend this until widespread vaccination is achieved.”
Walensky added: “Until more people are vaccinated and while we still have more than 50,000 cases a day, mask use indoors will provide extra protection.”
For most of the past year, the CDC had been advising Americans to wear masks outdoors if they are within 6ft of each other. The change in guidance was welcomed by experts.
Mike Saag, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the Associated Press: “It’s the return of freedom. It’s the return of us being able to do normal activities again. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the exit ramp. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
More people need to be vaccinated and concerns persist about variants and other possible shifts in the pandemic. But Saag said the new guidance was a sensible reward following the distribution of effective vaccines and about 140m Americans coming forward to get their shots.