Do I still need to wear a mask? Here's what the new CDC guidelines mean for you

Paulina Pineda
Arizona Republic

Local mask regulations and business requirements are changing rapidly as recent federal guidelines relaxed mask requirements for vaccinated people, which leaves many wondering where face coverings are still required or if masks can be ditched completely. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 13 loosened indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people after previously easing restrictions in outdoor settings.

The new guidelines suggest fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks and social distancing in most indoor places and outdoors, even when there are crowds. A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the second Pfizer or Moderna shot or two weeks after the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But don't throw away your masks just yet. 

Masks are still required in certain indoor settings, in some businesses and cities can require them inside city facilities. 

Here are some common questions and answers regarding mask use and other COVID-19 precautions as more Arizonans get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

What are the CDC guidelines on mask use?

The CDC says people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can resume most activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart.

The health agency said people can safely exercise outside, attend small gatherings with fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people, dine outdoors with people from multiple households and even attend crowded outdoor events without wearing masks.

Fully vaccinated people can go without a mask at the salon, while shopping, at the movie theater and church. They can dine indoors or go to a bar or participate in a high-intensity exercise class without a face covering or social distancing, too. 

Should I wear a mask if I'm not vaccinated?

People who have not been vaccinated or have only received the first Pfizer or Moderna shot should continue to wear masks in crowded outdoor spaces and while indoors to limit exposure, the CDC recommends. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert, recently told Axios that the public did not correctly understand the CDC’s latest announcement.

“I think people are misinterpreting, thinking that this is a removal of a mask mandate for everyone. It’s not,” he said. “It’s an assurance to those who are vaccinated that they can feel safe, be they outdoors or indoors.”

Where are masks still required?

That depends on where you live, shop, work or travel. 

Government regulations, business rules or workplace guidance may for the time being require that people regardless of vaccine status to continue wearing masks or social distancing.

The CDC guidelines state fully vaccinated people must still wear masks in health care settings. Face coverings should still be used in congregate settings such as prisons and homeless shelters.

Masks are required on planes, buses and trains and in transportation hubs such as airports or bus stations regardless of vaccine status, according to a federal mask mandate that was recently extended to September. The order applies to students and drivers on school buses, too.

Read the latest:Arizona COVID-19 updates

If a business still requires a mask, am I required to wear one?

Yes. You should head back to your car and grab a mask if a business requires masks to enter the premises. 

The CDC guidelines require shoppers, diners and anyone visiting a private business to observe the business' rules. 

The issue of mask use and enforcement in businesses has sometimes led to confrontations between customers and workers, who have largely been responsible for compliance with public health mandates. 

But the idea of having policies related to customer behavior isn't new, Dr. Joshua LaBaer, director of the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute, previously told The Arizona Republic. 

Businesses have long had rules in place requiring customers to wear shoes and shirts and state and local laws ban smoking in restaurants and other public places. 

This is no different, LaBaer said. 

Businesses may ask customers to leave if they refuse to comply with mask rules. Police suggest employees call officers instead of engaging with customers who become aggressive. Businesses can file a complaint with officers who can then cite people for trespassing or disorderly conduct and remove them from the store. 

'Beginning of the end' of pandemic:More vaccines, moderate cases, fewer masks

What if the business doesn't require masks but the local government does?

Similar to business rules, the CDC guidelines state people must follow local, state or federal policies. 

If mask use or social distancing is required by the local government, people should wear masks even if the business they're entering doesn't require them. 

Can I still wear a mask even if it's not required?

Bottom line: If you're fully vaccinated and there are no local rules or business rules requiring masks, it's about personal preference.

People who have compromised immune systems, who care for elderly relatives or have young children may want to continue wearing masks even after being vaccinated against COVID-19 and that decision is up to each individual. 

Wearing a mask can help further prevent against infection, which is still possible, through rare, in fully vaccinated people.

While the CDC does not recommend wearing a face mask to prevent influenza, cases of the flu were down significantly this flu season. So some people may want to wear masks when influenza is in circulation to reduce their odds of contracting it. In Arizona, flu season typically begins in October and peaks between January and March.

What if I have a weakened immune system?

The CDC cautioned that anyone with a weakened immune system or who is taking certain medications may not be fully protected against the virus even after the vaccine and should consult with their health care provider on best practices. 

Will I be asked to prove I'm vaccinated in stores or other indoor spaces?

The new CDC recommendations could put cities and businesses in sticky situations as there's no way to tell who is and isn't vaccinated other than asking to see their vaccination cards.

The relaxation of mask and social distancing guidelines largely relies on an honor system, which has led some to raise concerns that case rates could increase again if people who aren't fully vaccinated stop wearing masks.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in April issued an executive order banning "vaccine passports," a paper or electronic record of vaccination. He prohibited local and state governments from requiring people provide their vaccination status to enter government buildings or receive government services. 

The order doesn't prohibit health care institutions, schools or other agencies that already collect vaccine documentation from continuing to do so.

Businesses, except those that contract with the state to provide public services, and employers may require people show their vaccination card or otherwise prove that they've received the vaccine to enter the premises. 

In Scottsdale:School board meeting ends in uproar over requiring attendees to wear masks

Does Phoenix require masks?

The Phoenix City Council on May 19 dropped its requirement that vaccinated people wear masks in public.

Phoenix, and a handful of other Arizona cities and one county, had kept their mask rules after Ducey in late March rolled back many remaining pandemic protocols, including cities' and counties' power to enforce local mask mandates except in government facilities.

Phoenix's mask rules now conform with the latest CDC guidelines and will automatically adjust to follow any future recommendations on mask use from the federal agency.

That means vaccinated people aren't required to wear masks in most indoor places or outdoors. Masks still are required on public transit, in air travel and in Phoenix's city buildings.

Businesses can continue to set and enforce their own policies on mask use.

What about other cities?

Tempe, Tucson, Flagstaff and Pima County also had kept their rules requiring masks in public places in defiance of the governor's March orders. 

Starting May 21, you will no longer have to wear a mask while in public in Tempe.

Mayor Corey Woods rescinded the city's mask mandate that had been in effect since last June, but the city encouraged people who aren't fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks when possible. 

The Tucson City Council voted May 17 to drop its mask rules and the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted May 14 to rescind its mask mandate following the CDC guidelines.

Flagstaff is consulting with public health officials on how to move forward and the City Council will take up the rules at its May 25 meeting.

Some cities may still require visitors to certain city facilities or those who are enrolled in certain programs to wear masks. Tempe, for example, said programs that serve children, seniors or other vulnerable populations will continue to require masks and social distancing. 

Why am I reluctant to take off my mask? 

While the updated guidelines may be welcome news and a sign that a return to normalcy is around the corner, many still may be hesitant to take off their masks.

Masks served as one of the main forms of protection against COVID-19 and people may feel like stripping them off is a risk. 

People have grown accustomed to social distancing and masks sometimes served as a barrier for unwanted interactions. Breaking away from that could make some feel uneasy.

That's OK and adjusting could take some time, experts say.

"Behaviors take time to implement and adopt. They also take time to un-adopt," Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told USA Today.

Do I need to get tested if I've been exposed to COVID-19?

The CDC's updated guidelines state that fully vaccinated people don't need to get tested after a known exposure unless they experience symptoms.

People who live or work in congregate settings, like a correctional or detention facility or a homeless shelter, must get tested after coming into contact with someone who has COVID-19. 

Can I shake hands if I'm vaccinated?

"If you’ve been vaccinated, you don’t have to wear your mask and you can shake hands," President Joe Biden said May 13. "You can even give each other a hug.  But if you’ve not been vaccinated, please wear the mask. Please wear the mask."

It's unclear whether or not handshakes will become the commonplace greetings they were pre-pandemic, particularly because it's not always obvious whether someone has been vaccinated or not.

A little more than a year ago, during the early months of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci told a Wall Street Journal podcast that he didn't think Americans should ever shake hands again.

"Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease, it would probably decrease the incidence of influenza dramatically in this country," he said on April 7, 2020. "I don't think we're ever going to get back to free-flying lack of attention to what transmissibility of infections are. I think people are going to be careful."

Where do I have to wear masks while traveling?

Interim CDC guidance, updated May 13, says travelers are required to wear a mask on all planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the U.S. and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations.

There are some exceptions to the mask rule on transportation.  Among other things, people are not required to wear a mask while eating, drinking or taking medication for brief periods of time, or while communicating for brief periods of time with a person who is hearing-impaired when the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication.

Republic reporters Stephanie Innes and Alison Steinbach and USA Today contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Paulina Pineda at paulina.pineda@azcentral.com or 480-389-9637. Follow her on Twitter: @paulinapineda22.

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