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The News You’ve Been Waiting For: No More Masks Outdoors, Says the CDC

Now that part of the country is vaccinated, previous recommendations about mask wearing are being re-written.

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It’s clear that people are getting sick of wearing masks and pandemic fatigue has fully set in. But today the CDC finally gave the update that people have been asking for: Fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors. That includes outdoor recreation or activities.

That comes with a bit of an asterisk, though. One being that the CDC doesn’t consider you to be fully vaccinated until two weeks after your second dose (or only, if you got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). The other asterisk is that everyone—including vaccinated people—should be wearing masks in crowds, even if you’re outdoors.

Runners have had an uncomfortable go with mask wearing, dutifully donning the fabric while we sweat and wheeze (those who complied, that is). But messaging was easier when things were worse and the guidance was that everyone should wear a mask no matter what. Lately the guidelines have been more fuzzy, leading to confrontation and debate among runners. 

Unlike a year ago, we have a better understanding of the virus and how it spreads, which is mainly through respiratory droplets produced when we cough, sneeze, yell, or speak. Wearing masks, as the CDC has recommended, has proven effective in numerous observational and epidemiological studies

Mask wearing has proven to be even more effective when combined with social distancing, proper hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation, the CDC concluded in a science brief published in November of 2020. 

RELATED: Runner-Friendly Face Coverings

With 34 percent of adults in the United States fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 52 percent at least partially vaccinated, even fervent mask wearers started to push back on wearing masks outdoors where the risk of transmission is lower. Because while wearing a mask while running isn’t harmful in any way, it certainly isn’t comfortable.

This article published in the Atlantic artfully outlines the dissonance (and silliness) between walking to a restaurant outside and alone, wearing your mask, only to remove it when you sit down at a table, indoors, in close proximity to the people you’re dining with.

Yes, it does feel pointless to wear a mask while walking alone through a parking lot. But here’s what runners should know about running outdoors at this point in the pandemic. 

Can You Get COVID If You’re Running Outside?

What is the risk of getting the virus outdoors versus indoors? It doesn’t go down to zero when you step outside, but excluding crowded spaces, risk of transmission outdoors is very low. One study looked at the probability of getting infected outdoors in three Italian cities using statistical models. Even in theoretical scenarios where up to 25 percent of the population was infected, the risk still remained low. 

A study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that less than 10 percent of reported COVID-19 transmissions globally occurred in outdoor settings. The researchers concluded that you’re 19 times more likely to contract COVID in an indoor setting than outdoors.

Additionally, the variables that made people more likely to become infected outdoors included the duration of personal contact, not wearing a mask, and spending some amount of time indoors during an outdoor gathering. 

“One of the things I think is important to understand is that while there’s wonderful news and we’re getting more and more people vaccinated every single day. We still had 57,000 cases of COVID yesterday. We still had 733 deaths,” said Dr. Rochelle Wolensky, director of the CDC in an appearance on the Today Show on April 22. “So while we are really trying to scale up vaccination, we have this complex message that we still have hotspots in this country and we will be looking at the outdoor masking question, but it’s also in the context of the fact that we still have people who are dying of COVID.”

Dr. Brian Nichols, virologist and associate professor at Seton Hall University, warns that the possibility of variants should keep us vigilant. “It’s not impossible to think that now that we’ve put a selective pressure on these viruses with a lot of people vaccinated and producing antibodies that the emergence of a new variant is possible,” he says. “So I think we want to keep our guard up to prevent that from happening as best as we possibly can.”

When Is it OK to Run Outside Maskless?

Even though we should keep our guard up, Dr. Nichols believes there are some scenarios in which runners are OK getting a break from mask wearing with very low risk. 

But first: “If the local public health tells everyone to wear the mask in the area, we should obey it,” he says. States may not adopt the new CDC guidance right away. Find out if your state currently has an outdoor mask mandate here. If they don’t, consider the following outdoor running scenarios.

  1. You’re outside running with a couple of other people. Everyone is vaccinated. “I see no reason why, if you’re jogging with a couple of other vaccinated adults why you couldn’t take your mask off and be comfortable,” says Dr. Nichols.  
  2. You’re unvaccinated, but low risk for COVID and your running partner has been vaccinated (or vice versa). Though it’s a matter of personal risk assessment, Dr. Nichols also didn’t see a reason why you couldn’t run unmasked outdoors here. 
  3. No one in your small group of running buddies has been vaccinated yet. “If you’re very close together and you have jobs that require you to interact with a lot of people, I would definitely say to keep the mask on out of an abundance of caution,” says Dr. Nichols. It would be even better to try and space out while you run as well.
  4. You’re running with a large group of people or in a crowded area. Regardless of vaccination status, “it’s probably not a bad idea to have your mask around you and maybe put it on when you come across an area where there’s a lot of people,” he says.

RELATED: Group Runs are Back and a Little Socially Awkward. Here’s How to Cope

Runners also need to remember that, because of the way the virus spreads, this is one of the riskier outdoor activities. “In the context of runners, you’re also breathing heavier. Especially as the more you breathe, the more virus you produce, the further you expel those respiratory droplets, compared to if you’re sitting or resting,” says Dr. Nichols. 

For now, wearing a mask while running or not is going to depend heavily on your personal scenario and your own comfort with the risk. “While your risk of acquiring the virus outside is lower than acquiring it inside, it’s not impossible to get it outside,” says Dr. Nichols.