US to review travel, school COVID guidance after new mask rule

  • Visitors walk without masks on the pier Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director, gives her opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss the ongoing federal response to COVID-19 on May 11, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

The Biden administration will begin updating its guidance for travel and other sectors — likely further relaxing rules across the U.S. after largely lifting its mask mandate for vaccinated people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that fully vaccinated people could go without a mask in most settings, even indoors in large crowds, in what was a key milestone in the U.S. path out of the pandemic.

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Other steps will follow. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday that the agency would update guidance for travel, schools and other things, and the White House is signaling to government agencies that they also can loosen mask rules.

The CDC will “take this guidance and revise our guidance across a wide range of settings and areas,” Walensky told NBC’s “Today” show. “So we need to look at our travel guidance, we need to look at our school guidance, our child care guidance, our camp guidance.” Travel was a particular priority, she said.

The comments signal that a series of further rollbacks will follow in coming days and weeks, with U.S. caseloads falling and the vaccination campaign plodding along, though at a lower rate than a month ago. Walensky called Thursday’s announcement a first step, but cautioned that unvaccinated people and children are still urged to wear masks, and that mask mandates could remain in place in parts of the U.S.

“We really do need to understand that this country is not uniform. There are places in this country that still have higher rates of disease; there are places in this country that still have lower rates of vaccination,” she said. “People may want to continue wearing masks because we’ve been wearing masks for 15 months and it’s going to be hard to be able to let go of them — and we should be able to do that in our own due time.”

The announcement will ripple through existing rules. Biden issued an executive order requiring mask-wearing on his first day in office; it remains in effect but its fine print tells agencies to follow CDC guidance.

After Thursday’s announcement, the guidance is that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks inside, other than in certain facilities, like hospitals and jails. Agencies should follow current CDC guidance, a White House official said, when asked about the order.

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An order signed by President Joe Biden also remains in effect requiring masks for domestic and international travel. The CDC still recommends masks be worn on “all planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation,” though Walensky signaled that will be reviewed.

“In our travel guidance, we also have a travel policy, a national travel policy, so we need to have an inter-agency discussion about how that policy is going to be revised in the context of the new guidance,” she said.

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