States across the United States prepared to reassess their rules on mask-wearing, after the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unveiled new guidance allowing vaccinated people to go without face masks in most settings.
The surprise announcement on Thursday by the CDC means that Americans who have been fully vaccinated will no longer be obliged to wear face masks in most indoor settings. However, exceptions still apply, for example on buses and aeroplanes and in hospitals.
Social distancing requirements have also been eased for the fully vaccinated. Some states, however, have taken a cautious approach to the new guidance.
Nevada noted that Covid-19 was still a threat, and said residents could choose to continue using masks “based on their and their families’ personal health concerns”. Each of Nevada’s counties can still choose their own social distancing requirements, and businesses are permitted to operate more restrictive mask policies.
Massachusetts, New York and California still have mask mandates in place but said they were reviewing the guidance.
The announcement by the CDC was welcomed by President Joe Biden as a “great milestone”. Speaking at an event at the White House on Thursday – where both he and vice-president Kamala Harris appeared without masks – the president said the new guidance had been made possible “by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly”.
“When your country asked you to get vaccinated, you did. The American people stepped up. You did what I consider to be your patriotic duty. That’s how we’ve gotten to this day,” he said, as he urged those who had not been vaccinated to do so.
The use of face masks during the pandemic became highly politicised in the US, with former president Donald Trump refusing to wear one for much of last year. Many Republican-controlled states had already moved to abolish mask mandates before Thursday’s announcement.
Mr Biden had been criticised by some Republican commentators for wearing a face mask at press announcements outdoors last week after the CDC had recommended that fully vaccinated people did not need to wear a mask outdoors.
House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi provoked a furious reaction from Republicans after she said the House was not changing its rules obliging members to wear masks in the chamber despite the new guidance. This was because not all members of Congress had been vaccinated, she said.
“We cannot require someone to be vaccinated,” she said, reflecting a challenge that many institutions and business owners will have in the coming weeks and months as the US moves to return to some level of pre-pandemic normality.
About a third of the American population has been fully vaccinated, with vaccinations now averaging about two million a day, significantly lower than the peak in April.
With many pharmacies now offering free walk-in vaccines, the Biden administration has been focusing its resources on making vaccinations more accessible, particularly in rural America. Adolescents began receiving doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week after the CDC approved its use for 12- to 15-year-olds, opening up vaccinations to a significant part of the population.
In a separate development, New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik was chosen to lead the House Republican Conference after Liz Cheney was ousted on Wednesday. Speaking after the vote, Ms Stefanik underlined her allegiance to Mr Trump. “I support President Trump. Voters support President Trump. He is an important voice in our Republican Party, and I look forward to working with him,” she said.
Ms Cheney, whose vocal criticism of the former president led to her removal, repeated her views on Mr Trump in a Fox News interview on Thursday night, pledging to “make sure that he never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office”.