What Does the New CDC Mask Mandate Mean?

This week, AM analysts are tracking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new mask mandate guidelines. Last Thursday, May 13, CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can safely do most indoor and outdoor activities without wearing masks or social distancing. The guidance, however, still calls for people to mask up in crowded indoor settings. While some are applauding the change and excited to ditch their masks, the news left many confused. 

Last weekend, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky delivered a clear and stark message about the new mask mandate on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. “Only unvaccinated people are at risk if they take off their masks. If you are vaccinated, we are saying you are safe, you can take off your mask and you are not at risk of severe disease or hospitalization from Covid-19. If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe. Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask,” she said.  

The clarification did not appear to persuade some skeptics. The Los Angeles Times reported that health experts are questioning whether federal officials moved too fast in relaxing mask recommendations. In fact, three days after CDC reported new mask guidelines, AM analysts learned that the largest nurses’ union in the United States called on CDC to reverse their guidance. National Nurses United Executive Director Bonnie Castillo said in a statement the new guidance is “not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country.”

As California plans to relax their outdoor mask mandate by June 15, Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health’s infectious diseases division said, “If California does begin allowing fully vaccinated people to be maskless in stores, who would be checking to see if those without masks were really vaccinated? Will supermarkets really be interested in checking vaccine cards at the entrance? I can’t see grocery stores confirming that you’re vaccinated. It just won’t happen.” 

Dr. Swartzberg is not alone. Health and law experts told CNBC that relaxing the mask mandate would further complicate public health efforts to end the pandemic, adding it is “nearly impossible” to police the use of face masks because there is no way to know who is vaccinated and who isn’t. More than half of the population still haven’t gotten the shots, they said, risking more outbreaks from unmasked, unvaccinated individuals.  These concerns come as an Economist/YouGov poll that was taken before CDC’s announcement, reveals that 63% of people who said they had no plans of getting a vaccine said they felt “somewhat” safe socializing maskless indoors with other unvaccinated people. On the other hand, only 36% of people who’ve received at least one dose of a vaccine said the same.

Michael McCullough, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego told USA Today that many people will lie about being vaccinated in order to remove their masks in public, placing others at risk. He stated, “Many are lying, have been lying, and this is a perfect recipe for lots of people to be dishonest,” considering that currently there isn’t an ethical way to verify someone’s vaccination status, and it would be hard to implement such a process. 

With the new mask mandate, the question remains if we will see a spike in COVID-19 cases or if these rules will make it harder to encourage unvaccinated people to get their shots.  Despite the enthusiasm of getting things “back to normal,” some people are not quite ready to take off their masks and some states are proceeding with caution as leaders look to public health experts before making any decisions.

The confusion over the new mask mandate and rules reinforces the need for public policymakers to work closely with their strategic communication teams in crafting clear messaging that is easily understood by audiences. COVID-19 has challenged public health communicators and highlighted the need to conduct detailed research into audiences to understand their drivers of behavior and barriers to change when crafting messages, especially when the objective is to get someone to do something. A core feature of AM’s approach to social and behavior change communication is listening and learning everything we can about the target audience before we begin to develop the message and solution.


Want the latest insights on COVID-19? To find out how AM TRACE can help you with vaccine messaging strategies, vaccine management and distribution, testing coordination, and contract tracing, contact Dr. Christopher K Orlea, Chief Experience Officer at   

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