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You Don’t Need a Mask for Most Outdoor Exercise, CDC Advises

woman running by a bridge

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Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control issued new guidelines that suggest if you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask when exercising outdoors.
  • For unvaccinated people, they can go without a mask if alone or with members of their household.
  • Those exercising in larger groups, even outdoors, are still advised to wear masks as a precaution.

If you’re biking, running, or hiking outdoors on your own or with members of your household, you don’t need to wear a mask if you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For those who are unvaccinated, the CDC adds that you can go without a mask if you’re exercising alone or with members of your household.

“We know risk of transmission when outside is quite low, particularly when individuals are not surrounded by people,” says Vivek Cherian, M.D., internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. “There are many factors that make this the case, but mainly, you’re not dealing with stagnant air that can become easily contaminated.”

If you’re fully vaccinated and outdoors, your risk of contracting the virus during that outside activity is virtually non-existent, he says.

What’s Safe Now

As part of the new guidelines, the CDC released a chart ranking the safety of numerous indoor and outdoor activities for those who are unvaccinated and fully vaccinated.

Full vaccination means two weeks after the second shot of Pfizer or Moderna, or two weeks post-shot for Johnson & Johnson. Previous guidance advised mask wearing in any public setting, even outdoors, unless you were exercising solo in an area where you could maintain social distance from others.

Vivek Cherian, MD

We know risk of transmission when outside is quite low, particularly when individuals are not surrounded by people.

— Vivek Cherian, MD

In another update, those who are fully vaccinated are also able to go without masks when attending small outdoor gatherings and dine at outdoor restaurants with friends from multiple households, but the CDC still recommends that those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated wear a mask in those situations.

For example, participating in an indoor, high-intensity exercise class is listed as “least safe” for those who are unvaccinated, but safe for the fully vaccinated. However, everyone in that class should still be wearing a mask, the CDC suggests.

Large vs. Small Gatherings

One point of clarification not offered in these guidelines is how “small” is defined when talking about groups. For example, a running group comprised completely of fully vaccinated individuals may be able to go mask-free in greater numbers than a group that has unvaccinated people in it.

“The definition of ‘gathering’ is vague, and what the CDC is saying is that a large gathering is considered large when you have many people from multiple households in a private or public setting,” says Asim Shah, M.D., professor of community and family medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

That means it’s not an absolute number—the way that it was early in the pandemic, for instance, when governors specified how many could gather during stay-at-home orders—but rather, about how many households you are including. Shah says that’s because each household brings an added chance of COVID.

Keep That Mask Handy

Although fully vaccinated people should be offered more reassurance by these guideline updates, that doesn’t mean leaving your mask at home, Cherian says.

“If you are running or biking, you can absolutely enjoy that mask-less, whether you’re vaccinated or not,” he states. “However, it is always advisable to have it for a busy trail or having to go inside a store.”

Asim Shah, MD

The definition of ‘gathering’ is vague, and what the CDC is saying is that a large gathering is considered large when you have many people from multiple households in a private or public setting.,

— Asim Shah, MD

He adds that even at an outdoor gathering or when exercising in a group, it’s important to be mindful of the vaccination status and potential health vulnerability of others around you. If they are not vaccinated, he suggests that it’s best to wear a mask because there is still a possibility that you could be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID, despite being fully vaccinated.

That’s also true if you are partially vaccinated, which means you are between the first and second shot of Pfizer or Moderna, or you haven’t gone through the post-shot period for full vaccination.

“People have to make decisions about how closely they might interact with others at gatherings,” says Joshua Santarpia, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medica Center. “There’s not a clear line, and no answer will be without risk, so it’s up to the individual to make the best decision they can.”

What This Means For You

If you’re fully vaccinated, these new CDC guidelines expand what you can do without a mask, but even if you’re unvaccinated, you can now go mask-free when exercising outdoors if you’re alone or with members of your household.

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