With COVID-19 cases increasing again, federal, state, and local governments have begun to update guidance and/or rules on wearing masks indoors, even for fully vaccinated individuals. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about these recent developments.
Q: What's the latest CDC guidance on masks for fully vaccinated individuals?
A: On July 27, 2021, the CDC updated its guidance to state that fully vaccinated people should still wear a mask in public indoor settings if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission. Regardless of vaccination status and regardless of the level of transmission in the area, the CDC also recommends mask wearing indoors by individuals who:
- Have a weakened immune system;
- Are at increased risk for severe disease because of age or an underlying medical condition;
- Have someone in their household who has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is an unvaccinated adult.
Q: Must I follow the CDC's guidance?
A: While the CDC itself didn't specifically issue a mask mandate for the workplace, your state and/or local jurisdiction may have issued an executive order, published regulations, or enacted laws that require employers to follow the CDC's mask recommendations and/or follow additional rules. In these areas, employers would follow the latest CDC guidance and coordinate compliance with state and local guidance as well. Check your state and local rules for details.
Q: How many areas are considered to have substantial or high transmission of COVID-19? Where can I find out whether the CDC considers my area one of them?
A: As of August 4, 2021, more than 80 percent of the counties in the United States are considered either substantial or high community transmission areas, according to the CDC. You can find out how the CDC classifies your county's transmission rate here.
Q: Can I require masks if the level of transmission in my area is low or moderate?
A: Yes, most employers can require masks even if their area's level of transmission is low or moderate.
Q: What about state, county, and city mask mandates?
A: Some state and local rules require fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks (and follow other safety protocols) in certain situations. In some cases, jurisdictions that previously eased mask requirements are reversing those decisions now that COVID-19 cases are on the rise. For example, effective July 30, 2021, Nevada requires masks in indoor public spaces in all counties with substantial or high community transmission rates, regardless of vaccination status. As of July 31, 2021, the District of Columbia requires masks in indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. Several cities and counties in California and elsewhere have also reinstated mask requirements for vaccinated individuals. On the other hand, some state and local jurisdictions never eased their mask requirements for indoor settings. Many state and local health departments have also updated their guidance after the CDC made its changes. Make sure you check your state and local jurisdiction for the latest guidance and rules on masks and watch for developments closely.
Q: What is considered an "indoor public setting" or "indoor public space?" Am I covered?
A: Look at your applicable rule or guidance for details. Some places may define public indoor space broadly while in some cases, such as with the CDC, these terms may not be specifically defined in the rule or guidance. Employers should consider consulting legal counsel to determine whether they are covered by the rule or guidance.
Q: Can I require fully vaccinated employees to wear a face mask if my state, county, and city still say fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to do so?
A: Yes, employers generally may still require employees to wear face masks, practice social distancing, and follow other safety protocols. In fact, given the complexity surrounding vaccine mandates and documentation, rising cases, and the existence of variants, some employers are choosing to continue to require mask wearing and social distancing regardless of vaccination status.
Q: What if my city now says masks are required indoors but my state says they aren't?
A: If there's a conflict between rules, employers generally should follow the one that offers the greater protection to employees and requires masks. Consult with legal counsel to confirm compliance.
Q: Aren't employees going to be frustrated with reinstated mask requirements after they have been fully vaccinated?
A: Yes, some employees could be frustrated, but you can help manage their impression of the situation by how you communicate any changes. For example, be sure to let employees know why the change is necessary (such as, to help protect employees, prevent the spread of COVID-19 given the rise in cases, and/or comply with new guidance or rules). Additionally, thank them for being able to adapt in the constantly changing environment that the pandemic has created and let them know their safety will continue to be your top priority.
Understand the most up-to-date rules and guidance regarding masks and consider them as you draft, review, and implement policies for your workplace.