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Time to End Outdoor Mask Edicts

Scott Gottlieb, M.D.
 

By Scott Gottlieb

When fighting a crisis like Covid-19, health officials can never take for granted the public’s willingness to comply. The measures imposed—social distancing, wearing masks—require sacrifice. As conditions improve, policy makers must show they’re willing to ease restrictions as swiftly as they imposed them, and a critical early test will be on wearing masks outside.

Wearing masks and restricting large gatherings were essential to controlling the pandemic’s worst peaks. But infection levels are dropping and vaccination rates rising. This is the time to revisit rules on masking and distancing in low-risk outdoor settings like parks and sports venues. Easing these rules would move more activity outdoors, which reduces viral transmission.

In states such as Texas and New Hampshire, governors have lifted restraints on the size of outdoor gatherings and the need for masks. Connecticut, Rhode Island and others have announced plans to relax outdoor requirements in May. But the policy process in Washington is moving too slowly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance still prescribes social limits while outside. Many governors are reluctant to step out ahead of the agency. About half of states still require people to wear face coverings in all public settings.

The virus won’t be eliminated. Some 40,000 Americans are hospitalized and some 55,000 cases are diagnosed each day. But more than 80% of Americans over 65 are protected by a vaccine, and infection rates are declining rapidly in most states—including Michigan, this month’s worst-hit. Vaccines are available to anyone over 16 in every state. Soon the problem will be a surplus of doses.

Consider a well-known study conducted in China last spring. Researchers traced 318 outbreaks to figure out the chains of transmission. In only one of 318 outbreaks did the initial cases come from contact while outside. The rest originated inside homes or on mass transit.

Another study found that the risk of transmission indoors was about 19 times as high as in open-air environments. Yet the CDC’s guidance says only that “masks may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others.” Another CDC document advises people outside to “stay at least 6 feet apart from people who don’t live with you” and “limit your time around others.”

The guide for measuring risk should be the overall vulnerability of the population, not only the daily Covid case count. Reducing infection levels is important, but many cases are mild or asymptomatic. Given continued testing, daily cases may hover around 10,000 this summer, but that’s much less alarming than a comparable number last summer, given the population’s fading susceptibility thanks to vaccines.

After a year of sacrifice, more than 140 million Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine. They know their dangers are receding and want to return to normal. Public-health officials need to be willing to relax some restrictions and tolerate a low level of risk. Americans shouldn’t be afraid to go outside and enjoy the warm weather—no mask required.

Dr. Gottlieb is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, 2017-19. He serves on the boards of Pfizer and Illumina.

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