Boxes of PPE, Personal protective equipment, specifically face masks stacked up waiting to be used in a COVID testing centre in a community hub, 28th of April 2021, United Kingdom. PPE equipment is worn to minimise exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace illnesses, specifically in this case COVID-19. (photo by Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images)
Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures/Getty Images

The CDC just announced the mask era is coming to an end (sort of)

As vaccination rates continue to climb around the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidance, bringing the prospect of a return to a fully mask-less existence one step closer to reality. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced during a White House COVID briefing Thursday. "We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy," she added.

Specifically, Walensky said Americans who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks, including indoors, and including while gathering in larger groups. The new guidelines come as the availability of coronavirus vaccines has dramatically expended, including the recent inclusion of children between the ages of 12 and 15 to the eligibility rolls. Still, while the prospect of a mask-less summer remains perhaps the single most-looked-forward-to announcement of the year, the CDC's decision does come with a number of caveats.

"Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance," the CDC explained on its website. However, the agency cautioned, not only are those location-based exceptions to going mask-less still in place, but people — even those who have been fully vaccinated — will also still be required to wear masks under other specific circumstances as well.

"If you travel, you should still take steps to protect yourself and others," the CDC said. "You will still be required to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States, and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations." Similarly, even vaccinated people will be required to keep their masks on and practice social distancing in places like prisons, homeless shelters, nursing homes, and medical facilities — essentially, places with static, at-risk populations.

The CDC's guidelines also do away with blanket quarantine policies for fully vaccinated people traveling within the United States, as well as with the requirement for COVID testing before and after travel.

Crucially, however, the CDC's new mask-less, non-social distancing guidelines seem to operate largely on the honor system. There is no information on the Centers' website about how it plans to enforce or regulate these new guidelines to ensure non-vaccinated people don't take advantage of the prospect of going prematurely mask-less. Still, after a year during which the mere notion of entering a building without a face covering seemed like a fairy tale, the CDC's announcement is an unambiguous step — if not an outright leap — in the right direction.