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New Florida, CDC mask tips overlap but aren’t identical. Who should you look to?

The federal agency offered updated guidance this week on wearing masks outside. Florida’s surgeon general went broader.
Cristina Gomez, of Tampa, left, discusses the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine with Cielo Gomez, with the Consulate of Mexico in Orlando, on Thursday, April 15, 2021, moments after Gomez received her first dose of the vaccine at Iglesia Tampa Bay in Tampa.
Cristina Gomez, of Tampa, left, discusses the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine with Cielo Gomez, with the Consulate of Mexico in Orlando, on Thursday, April 15, 2021, moments after Gomez received her first dose of the vaccine at Iglesia Tampa Bay in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 30
Updated Apr. 30

Federal and state agencies released new guidance on mask-wearing this week, and they broadly have the same message in common: With vaccination rates climbing, people can — if they desire — relax their usage of face coverings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines first, on Tuesday, citing the full or partial vaccination of more than half of U.S. adults and declines in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Then, Thursday night, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued a public health advisory that de-emphasized masks in almost all public settings for vaccinated people.

But differences in the announcements leave Floridians to puzzle out when they should wear masks and when they can go without, based on whether they’re indoors or outdoors, vaccinated or not.

Fully vaccinated Americans can go without a face covering outdoors, except at large gatherings like concerts or sporting events, where they should still mask up, according to the CDC. Those who are unvaccinated or have only received one dose of the two-shot Moderna or Pfizer vaccines are safe to go without masks while walking or exercising outdoors or at small outdoor gatherings with people they know to be fully vaccinated, the CDC said.

But those who aren’t fully vaccinated should keep faces covered at gatherings with other unvaccinated people and in settings such as outdoor restaurants, the CDC said. And the agency urged everyone, vaccinated or not, to keep wearing masks in indoor public places.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said states should model their own vaccine guidelines on the CDC’s updated recommendations. Rivkees’ advisory on Thursday, though, went broader: Fully vaccinated Floridians, it said, “should no longer be advised to wear face coverings or avoid social and recreational gatherings except in limited circumstances.”

Rivkees didn’t outline what those “limited circumstances” would be, and the advisory didn’t draw any line between indoor and outdoor spaces. It didn’t announce any changes to previous mask advisories for unvaccinated people.

“It would have been nice had Dr. Rivkees noted those exceptions — like if you’re going into a large crowd or an indoor restaurant or if you’re with a lot of people you don’t know,” said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health and health policy at the University of South Florida. “I think that’s consistent with the governor’s less-is-more approach for dealing with behavior under this disease.”

The CDC announcement and Rivkees’ guidance aren’t totally at odds, Wolfson said, though the CDC’s is more specific and conservative.

It continues a pandemic-long trend of the state’s orders and suggestions not totally squaring with what the federal government puts forth, though, he said. That friction erodes people’s trust in public institutions, Wolfson said, which could create a problem that outlasts the pandemic.

“I think complacency, confusion, and distrust of information have been the legacies of this disease, and the conflicting messages of state and federal governments,” he said. “And we’re going to have to live through that.”

Floridians should ultimately exercise common sense, he said. They ought to keep their masks on in big crowds. They should still look for outdoor seating at restaurants when they can get it. They can feel good about meeting up with vaccinated family and friends.

People who have been conscientious of the coronavirus’s effects — not just death and short-term illness but also the long-term effects that can befall even those with asymptomatic cases — will probably keep acting cautiously, he said. Those who have been led by political or religious leaders to believe that the pandemic is less of a problem than it actually is will probably think the CDC’s guidance is too strict.

But regardless of which level of government they look to, Wolfson said, people should remember that this is guidance, not law.

“(The CDC is) easing into the water slowly,” he said. “The governor is saying, ‘The water’s fine, come on and swim, folks.’”

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