Mask Mandates Are Ending—but Should You Still Wear One?

The CDC still recommends masking—but mask mandates are ending in many states. Here's what doctors have to say about who should still wear a mask.

Covid-19 face mask on color background
Photo: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

As Omicron cases continue to fall in most places, many states have rolled back some of their mask mandates for indoor locations like restaurants and schools. But with the CDC still recommending wearing masks when indoors, it's led to a lot of confusion about when and where (and even if) you need to wear a mask going forward.

"A lot of us are looking to the CDC to come up with guidance that is both practical and durable, meaning that it will not have to be quickly changed, but rather last at least several months ahead," says Vivek Cherian, MD, a Chicago-based internal medicine physician. "The challenge, ultimately, is there is not a single metric the CDC can follow to make the decision, because of the viral dynamics. Things are changing quickly and not uniformly across the country—cases are down significantly in many areas of the country, however, are still peaking in some areas."

Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth, says that we're at the point in the COVID pandemic when you have to consider your own individual risk—and make your choices accordingly.

"The recommendations up until now have been so black and white, but now we can allow people to make a decision that makes sense for them," she says. "The most important thing at this point is what your individual inner circle's risks are—if you have people in your household who are not vaccinated, older, or have underlying medical conditions, make the decision based on that."

Because Dr. Barron works with people who are highly immunocompromised, she's planning to continue masking until the community transmission rate drops below 5 percent—but other people may make a different decision. "There are a lot of things in life where you may feel more comfortable than your neighbor," she says. "Some people will never get on a ladder, others will get on it, no big deal."

So what should you consider when you're making the call? Here are the variables that may lead you to decide to don a mask.

When you should wear a mask

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If you aren't fully vaccinated

If you aren't fully vaccinated—with three doses of an mRNA vaccine like Pfizer or Moderna, or a dose of Johnson & Johnson plus a booster of one of the mRNA vaccines—it's important to wear a mask.

"You need to make sure that you're vaccinated and boosted, because if you're not, you certainly are at a much higher risk of getting infected and sick," says Dr. Cherian.

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If you or a loved one is immunocompromised or has a health condition

"You have to think about the state of your immune system," Dr. Barron says. "If you're on medication that blunts the effect of the vaccine, or if you have an elderly parent or someone in your circle who is immunocompromised, I would wear a mask."

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If you're in a crowded setting—especially indoors

The more people around you—especially people whose vaccine status you don't know—the more important masking may become. For instance, Dr. Barron points to outdoor activities as being low risk, though being outdoors in a crowd, like at a concert, would make COVID easier to transmit. "The proximity to people makes things more challenging," she says. "I'd avoid big crowds indoors, until the transmission rate goes really low."

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If case numbers are high near you

You can find information about the current number of cases near you and the rate of infection on local health department sites, Johns Hopkins University's tally, and national publications like the New York Times. That can help you assess the current level of risk where you are, before you decide whether or not to wear a mask.

"Look at what the local community spread is—in some parts of the country it is significantly down and in other parts of the country it is quite high," Dr. Cherian says.

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If you have symptoms

If you've developed typical COVID symptoms like a cough or sore throat, you need to get tested—and wear the mask to avoid spreading your illness to others.

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If you don't want to get sick

For many people, the past two years have brought a decrease in colds, flus, and other everyday illnesses. And that may lead them to consider masking in certain situations, even after COVID is receding.

"We need to change our mindset around protecting ourselves," Dr. Barron says. "Nobody has had colds, nobody has had flu—that was a really great thing." That's led her to opt to wear masks on planes, even after that mandate ends. "When someone near you is coughing and sneezing on a plane, that makes me feel crazy," she says. "I'm snapping my mask on."

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