I’m Vaccinated—Can I Stop Wearing My Mask?

Updated: May 18, 2021

You're fully vaccinated and mask-wearing guidelines have loosened—so when do you still have to wear a mask? You might be surprised...

New mask-wearing guidelines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave the green light to fully vaccinated people that they can forgo wearing a mask (for the most part).

Another gentle reminder from the CDC: Everyone who can safely get a Covid-19 vaccine should receive one as soon as possible.

Experts emphasize this is great news to be able to spend time indoors and outdoors mask-free, especially now that one-third of Americans are vaccinated with either Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, or Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

But, this doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind when it comes to managing this pandemic. So, when it comes to the question of when will we not have to wear masks? It’s complicated.

Despite these new guidelines and the findings of a CDC study that shows the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines provide 95 percent protection after two shots (and 82 percent after a single jab), it’s not time to entirely ditch your mask.

And, as the agency reminds everyone, this is especially true if you’re unvaccinated, have compromised immunity, or are on dialysis.

“I’m always cautious when I hear the word ‘guidelines,’ because I worry about over and under interpretation,” says Sharon Nachman, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in Stony Brook, New York.

“I’m excited to see we’re moving ahead, but guidelines are just that—you have to take a step back and remember that after a year of an absolute Covid-19 disaster it’s okay to be cautious about whether you’ll keep wearing a mask—even if you’ve been vaccinated.”

An airborne virus and how vaccines help

Since the pandemic began 16 months ago, we’ve learned so much about Covid-19 almost daily. Our understanding evolved from the idea that it could be transmitted on surfaces to the conclusion now that the virus is primarily airborne.

The good news: There’s good data emerging that shows the vaccines are effective in preventing you from transmitting the disease to others, which is yet another incentive to get vaccinated.

“The CDC wants to send a message that if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re largely prevented from getting infected and have a reduced risk of spreading it to others,” says Thomas A. Russo, MD, chief of the division of infectious disease at Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York.

“And, if you do get Covid-19, you will be asymptomatic or experience trivial disease.”

(Avoid falling for these Covid-19 vaccine myths.)

Where you should mask up

If you’re unvaccinated you should continue to wear your masks in bars, restaurants, theaters, and gyms, says Dr. Nachman—basically, continue to follow the guidelines in place prior to the rollout of vaccinations.

Current federal regulations still require vaccinated folks to wear masks on public transportation and in certain settings:

  • trains
  • planes
  • buses
  • airports
  • other transportation hubs
  • nursing homes
  • jails
  • homeless shelters

Dr. Nachman stresses the need for unvaccinated individuals to wear masks in public and in large groups where it’s impossible to stay socially distant.

“This is a big concern for me,” she says. “I worry about the person who says ‘I’m not getting a vaccine, I don’t believe in Covid-19, and I don’t believe in wearing a mask.’ That person is at high risk of the disease.”

What about the kids?

While you don’t need to wear a mask with your immediate family, consider masking up if the grandparents are coming over for a visit—even if they’re vaccinated—and you have young, unvaccinated kids, Dr. Nachman says.

You should also take the time to track where your kids were during the week before a grandparent visit.

Be sure to factor in how much your kids have been hanging out with other kids, if anyone has had symptoms, or if anyone is currently ill, Dr. Nachman says.

“We don’t expect vaccinated older adults to wind up in the hospital with Covid-19 but, remember, in older individuals, even a small viral illness can set something else off,” she says.

For now, consider playing it safe and plan to sit outside, six feet apart.

“This is especially important if the grandparents are in fragile medical health,” Dr. Nachman says.

“These older adults have spent the past so many months in fear of getting Covid-19. If wearing masks and social distancing makes them comfortable, that’s the right answer for them.”

Close-up of woman holding face maskWestend61/Getty Images

Mask-wearing mandates will vary by state and business

As we navigate this new phase of the pandemic, mask mandates will continue to evolve but, ultimately, it’s up to the business to make the call—and we all have to honor that mandate, vaccinated or not.

“In the CDC announcement, there’s a caveat that institutions, like colleges, businesses, and states will ultimately make the decisions about mask mandates,” Dr. Russo says. “I think that’s what the intention was and I think it’s appropriate.”

Keep in mind the virus is still with us

Despite the strides we’ve made in containing Covid-19, cases are still significant, even in the United States.

The current seven-day average of daily new cases—35,442—decreased 23.6 percent compared with the previous seven days—46,390—according to CDC data.

And we are making progress when we consider the nation’s highest peak on January 8, 2021: 250,037.

However: “This isn’t like smallpox where we cured that disease,” says Dr. Russo. “Even if we do great in this country, until the world gets vaccinated, it will be imported into this country.”

Ultimately, due to vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal—a Monmouth University poll published in April revealed that one in five Americans are still unwilling to get the Covid-19 vaccine—it’s possible we may never reach herd immunity, where enough people are vaccinated that the virus can’t find anyone else to infect, ultimately slowing down transmission.

“As long as there are Covid-19 cases out there, the virus is able to evolve and change,” Dr. Russo says.

Vaccines will help all of us

If you’re unvaccinated, you pose a risk to yourself and others by remaining unmasked, Dr. Russo says.

“It’s important to explain it this way: You pose a risk to an expansive group of fully vaccinated people who might not have had an optimal antibody response,” he says.

“This includes our transplant patients, those who are on immune-suppressive therapies for diseases including psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer.”

In addition, as the cool weather comes this fall, Dr. Russo expects that there will be another blip in cases.

“If you’re unvaccinated and if there are more pesky variants that arise this will affect you,” Dr. Russo says.

“This is a global disease that will never go away and it’s the unvaccinated who will continually get infected. There’s no hiding from this, you will get infected at some point so please wear a mask,” he urges.

Next, here’s what to know about coronavirus mutations.