What Should Unvaccinated People Do After Mask Mandates Are Lifted?

Experts recommend that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks in certain situations. Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Experts say unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing at indoo…

Experts recommend that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks in certain situations. Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Experts say unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing at indoor events and in other situations.
  • The experts note that the United States isn't near herd immunity for COVID-19, so unvaccinated people need to be cautious.
  • They note that people who aren't vaccinated can contract the coronavirus more easily and spread it to others.

COVID-19 mask mandates are disappearing across the United States, and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say fully vaccinated people can resume normal activities without wearing masks or physically distancing in most situations.

But that doesn’t mean everyone should put aside their face coverings just yet.

Unvaccinated people still should wear masks indoors and where physical distancing isn’t possible, experts say. 

That includes children, particularly since the COVID-19 vaccines are not yet approved for those under age 12.

“If there continues to be risk in the community like there currently is, masks should be worn [by unvaccinated people] whenever there is risks of transmission,” Dr. Michael Myint, an infectious disease specialist and physician executive on population health, quality, and risk adjustment at MultiCare Connected Care in Seattle, told Healthline. “These risks include all indoor spaces and outdoor crowded spaces where social distancing can’t be maintained. This is to both protect yourself but also to protect others as an unvaccinated individual is much more at risk of becoming ill from COVID-19, especially if there are other risk factors. Further, wearing a mask protects others around you as COVID-19 can present with minimal symptoms.”

Dr. Jonathan Leizman, chief medical officer at Premise Health, told Healthline that unvaccinated people “should continue to wear masks in most settings. This includes when attending small, outdoor gatherings with other unvaccinated people, going to the grocery store, visiting the barber or hair salon, going to a museum, and participating in exercise classes.

“While in many parts of the U.S. businesses have reopened, and mask mandates and social distancing guidelines have been lifted, behaviors that unvaccinated Americans can safely engage in at this stage of the pandemic remain largely unchanged,” said Leizman. “According to the CDC, unvaccinated Americans can safely participate in outdoor activities with members of their household, like running or biking, and attend small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated family and friends without wearing a mask.

“However, when unvaccinated individuals from multiple households are interacting, they should wear masks. Similarly, if individuals from multiple households interact and their vaccination statuses are unknown, masks should be worn,” he added.

Mask-wearing behavior may vary depending on location and the vaccination status of others, said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in New York.

“When in small groups with others who are vaccinated and who know and are comfortable with your unvaccinated status, it is possible to be unmasked,” Nachman told Healthline. “When in larger groups (more than 10 people), I think masking will be the preferred route for all of these at the event. Outdoors, unmasking may be considered if there are more than 10 people, but again, the larger the crowd, and the smaller the space between people, the more we encourage to continue to wear a mask.”

Not near normal yet

Myint said the chance of unvaccinated people acquiring the coronavirus will persist until COVID-19 is no longer circulating widely in the population.

That won’t occur until enough people have either been vaccinated or have antibodies against the novel coronavirus as a result of having had the disease.

“The key to life in the U.S. returning to normal is high vaccination rates,” said Leizman. “Getting as many people vaccinated as we can will result in a drop in overall COVID infection rates and get us closer to reaching the herd immunity threshold.

“The current thought is that between 70 and 90 percent of the U.S. population would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity,” he added. “Right now, the U.S. has reached a milestone of half of all U.S. adults fully vaccinated against the virus. As the Pfizer vaccine in recent weeks has become available to children over the ages of 12, this brings us one step closer to achieving herd immunity and getting back to normal as soon as safely possible.”

Nachman said it remains unclear “what is the number of people who have been vaccinated that will stop spread of infection.”

“Even now, with vast numbers of adults being vaccinated, we are still seeing new infection and, unfortunately, new hospitalizations and deaths,” she said. “Of importance, these hospitalizations and deaths are overwhelmingly among adults who have not been vaccinated. So, the take-home message is that even with lower numbers of new infections, COVID deaths among those not vaccinated are still happening on a daily basis.”

The status with children

Experts say children have a lower risk of severe COVID-19 disease than adults, which has led some states to lift mask mandates for students. 

CDC officials have also eased rules for vaccinated children at summer camps.

Experts, however, still recommend caution.

“Until vaccines are approved for children under 12, children will need to continue to wear masks in public settings, particularly when indoors,” said Leitzman.

“The CDC guidance hasn't changed so far, so if children are unvaccinated they should continue to mask until we get more information,” said Dr. Zachary Hoy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Nashville Pediatric Infectious Disease in Tennessee.

“It's difficult to predict when children can get back to normal life, but hopefully getting back to outdoor activities this summer will be helpful, and school attendance in the fall will start to look a lot more traditional at the end of summer,” Hoy told Healthline.