New masking guidelines for COVID-19: Answers to your questions

Thursday’s CDC announcement seems pretty straightforward. But don’t toss your mask yet, because there are some complexities, including a big one: California officials haven’t said yet whether the state will follow suit.

But we deciphered the new federal guidelines, so you don’t have to.

Q: I’m vaccinated. What can I do, mask-free?

A: In most circumstances, nearly everything you were doing before this pandemic cast its long shadow over our lives. That includes a wide range of favorite indoor activities, such as restaurant dining, attending church, getting a haircut, drinking at a bar, playing music in a band, singing with friends, going to the movies and joining an exercise class.

Of course, anything outdoors is fine, too.

Q: What about “social distancing”?

A: If you’re vaccinated, there’s no need. A long, tight hug is perfect right now.

Q: So it’s back to business as usual?

A: No! At least not in California, which still requires a mask indoors, regardless of your vaccine status. Local laws can also require masks. So can businesses and workplaces.

If you travel on any form of public transportation — including planes, buses and trains — you must still wear a mask. That includes travel hubs, such as airports, BART stops and Caltrain stations.

Doctors offices, hospitals and long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, will likely still require masks. So will prisons, jails and homeless shelters.

Q: How do I know if a mask-less person is actually vaccinated?

A: You don’t. And that’s a problem, because anybody can claim to be protected. Some worry that the anti-science crowd will be the first to unmask.

“The big question it raises is how to tell the vaccinated from unvaccinated,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at UC San Francisco. “It’s time to have serious discussion regarding a trustworthy proof of vaccination.”

Also, if your second dose is recent, wait two weeks before dropping the mask. That’s how long it takes to get full antibody protection.

Q: Wait — only two weeks ago, everybody was told to stay masked indoors. What changed?

A: Three things, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

First, cases have dropped by a third in the past two weeks. Second, vaccination rates are climbing, and young teenagers are now eligible for a shot. Finally, a growing body of research shows that vaccines can fend off our most dominant variant, called B.1.1.7.

Then there’s this: The CDC felt public pressure to ease up. The agency’s earlier recommendations were roundly criticized as being confusing and overly cautious.

Q: I haven’t had a chance to get vaccinated yet. What are the rules for me?

A: Unmasked, you can walk, run, hike or bike outdoors with members of your household. If your friends and family are all vaccinated, you can join them in small outdoor gatherings.

But if others at an event are unvaccinated, stay masked.

Even if you’re masked, the CDC says there’s still a modest risk of virus transmission at hair salons or barbershops, outdoor restaurants or uncrowded shops and museums.

All those indoor activities that are safe for vaccinated people? They’re not safe for you. Nor are crowded outdoor events, like a live performance, parade or sports event. Keep the mask on.

Q: My kids can’t get vaccinated, because they’re not yet eligible. Are they stuck wearing masks?

A: Yes, in general. If everyone ditches masks, children are still vulnerable.

Q: I’m vaccinated — but my immune system is suppressed because I’m being treated for cancer, have an organ transplant or take a medicine for arthritis or other autoimmune diseases. Do I need to wear a mask?

A: Unfortunately, yes. We don’t yet know whether vaccines are fully protective in such patients. Doctors assume that there’s reduced immunity — we just don’t know how much.

Q: I’m planning an international trip. What are the new rules?

A:  Pay close attention to the situation at your destination. The CDC is still instructing vacationers to avoid travel to plenty of popular places, including Canada and Mexico.

Even if vaccinated, you’ll need to take steps to protect yourself and others while en route — especially wearing a mask on public transportation.

You don’t need to get tested before leaving the U.S. unless your destination requires it. But you’ll still need to show a negative test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding an international flight back to the states. While self-quarantining isn’t required once you get home, you should still get tested three to five days after your trip is over.

Q: If I’m vaccinated but not wearing a mask, could I be infected by some weird new variant?

A: Potentially, but right now we think the problem is manageable. Two variants seem able to evade some immunity: B.1.351 and P.1, which emerged out of South Africa and Brazil, respectively. The vaccines still work against these variants — just not as well. Some people still get infected, although they seem protected against severe illness and death. The CDC is tracking cases of infection in vaccinated people in an effort to catch variant-linked outbreaks.

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