How Mask Guidelines Have Evolved in a Pandemic Year

A lot has changed since early 2020, when countries around the world first realized the potential threat of a highly contagious, and still mysterious, flulike virus.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, no one knew for sure how the virus spread. People were scrubbing their groceries. Governments urged people to stay home, to wash their hands frequently and to avoid touching their faces.

Masks quickly emerged as a point of confusion, as public health officials at first discouraged people from wearing them, citing shortages, and then endorsed them. Mask mandates became a flash point in the culture wars as states, counties and cities across the country adopted a patchwork of policies.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that it was no longer necessary for fully vaccinated people to wear masks in small groups outdoors, bringing the public guidance in line with a growing body of research indicating that the risk of spreading the coronavirus is much greater indoors.

Here is how the public health guidance on masking in the United States has shifted since the start of the pandemic.

January 2021

President Biden in January used his executive authority to impose mask requirements where he could — including on federal property and in interstate travel.

March 2021

With vaccinations on the rise, some states began lifting mask mandates. Others, including Florida and South Dakota, never had one.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, lifted the mask mandate and capacity limits on all businesses starting March 10. The order ensured that “all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny,” Mr. Abbott said.

April 2021

On April 27, the C.D.C. said that fully vaccinated people generally no longer needed to wear masks outdoors, but should continue to wear them at indoor gatherings or at crowded outdoor events. People who haven’t gotten their shots can also go without a mask in small gatherings held outside as long as they are with fully vaccinated friends and family, the agency said.

Vaccinated adults should continue to wear masks and stay at least six feet from others in large public spaces — such as at outdoor performances or sporting events, or in shopping malls and movie theaters — where the vaccination and health status of others would be unknown, the agency said. And they should still avoid medium-size and large gatherings, crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, officials said.

A growing body of research indicates that the risk of spreading the virus is far lower outdoors than indoors. Viral particles quickly disperse outdoors, public health officials have said, so the transmission risk is far lower, though not impossible.

“I think it’s pretty common sense now that outdoor risk is really, really quite low,” Dr. Fauci said Sunday on “This Week” on ABC. Particularly “if you are a vaccinated person, wearing a mask outdoors — I mean, obviously, the risk is minuscule.”

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