When can I stop wearing a mask? Health experts weigh in on the future of masking

When Can I Unmask
Posted at 3:32 PM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-08 15:32:51-05

CHICAGO — Despite millions of people now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, there’s still a long way to go before we can return to our pre-pandemic lifestyles. This week, in a series of reports, we look at some of the big questions many have about getting back to normal.

The pandemic has made wearing face masks ubiquitous. In many places, masks are required in order to enter restaurants, airports and schools. So, when can we safely stop wearing masks?

“I think it's better to think about it as, ‘When can I do X without wearing a mask?’ And the answer to that question is really different for different activities, explained Dr. Emily Landon, chief epidemiologist and executive medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medicine.

“I think over time, you're going to be doing more and more things without a mask. And unless cases come up, then you're going to have to put your mask back on for more things again.”

Dr. Landon says it’s safe, right now, for people who are fully vaccinated to not wear a mask around others who are fully vaccinated.

“Once I'm fully vaccinated, can I spend time with other people who are fully vaccinated in my home without a mask? I think that's probably pretty safe," she explained.

The CDC issued guidance Monday, stating fully-vaccinated people can also safely gather with a small group, such as another household, even if that group has not yet been vaccinated, as long as they are not at high risk for severe COVID-19 disease.

During the 1918 and 1919 influenza pandemic that killed some 675,000 people in the U.S., wearing germ shields, as they were called, lasted years. But historians point out that resistance, inconsistency and improper masking, coupled with the use of ineffective materials, likely prolonged the need.

Texas and Mississippi recently fully reopened, rescinding mask mandates to join about more than a dozen other states that don’t require them.

“Personal vigilance, to follow the safe standards, is still needed to contain COVID. It’s just that state mandates are no longer needed,” said Texas Governor Greg Abbott at the time.

Critics say it’s too soon.

Dr. Landon says as positivity rates go down and vaccination rates go up, we will see some mask requirements loosen fairly quickly.

“I think, this summer, you're going to see a lot of people able to do outdoor activities without a mask on. I think in the fall, you're going to see a lot of places will start relaxing some of their masking restrictions," said Dr. Landon.

But it will be some time before immunity is high enough population-wide for us to un-mask safely in indoor public spaces, like grocery stores and restaurants, when we’re around people who we don’t know.

Dr. Landon says over the next year or two, wearing masks will not go away entirely. If we see virus cases spike seasonally, like in the winter, mask-wearing could be necessary.

“I think it's going to be this push and pull sort of the, you know, riding the waves of the masking,” said Dr. Landon.

While it’s too early to throw out your masks--depending on the circumstances and who you’re around--you may be able to wear them less and less.