New guidance gives a bit of breathing room on wearing masks outdoors

A mask hanging on a hammock
If you're fully vaccinated, the CDC says it's okay to ditch the mask during small outdoor gatherings. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Just in time for cookouts and black flies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday fully vaccinated people can socialize and dine outdoors with a small group of friends without wearing a mask, even if those friends are unvaccinated.

In its new color-coded guide, the CDC still recommends everyone wear masks at crowded outdoor events like sporting events, live performances, and parades, and in all indoor settings, such as hair salons, museums, gyms, full-capacity worship services, and the grocery store. 

Dr. Beth Daly, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Disease Control, said Tuesday the CDC’s new guidance does not differ from the state’s recommended COVID-19 precautions. Even after Gov. Chris Sununu announced in mid-April that he was lifting the state’s mask mandate, he and state public health officials recommended continued mask wearing when social distancing is not possible and while socializing in small groups. 

“Eventually we want that to change,” Daly said. “We still have high case numbers and not enough of the population vaccinated.” On Tuesday, the state’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 91 people hospitalized, 2,690 active cases, and a seven-day positivity rate of 4.1 percent. Of the 273 new cases the state announced Tuesday, 61 individuals were under 18. About 26 percent of the state is fully vaccinated, while nearly 54 percent has received one dose. 

Sununu announced Tuesday afternoon that the state is resuming use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this Sunday at clinics in Concord, Nashua, and Newington. The state paused use of the vaccine on April 13, following federal recommendations after six people in the United States had developed a rare disorder involving blood clots within about two weeks of vaccination. 

Daly said cases are increasing among younger populations and decreasing among those 70 and older, largely because the younger population – ages 16 to 29 – only recently became eligible for vaccinations. Many are still waiting for their first dose, she said. Nearly 80 percent of people age 70 and above are fully vaccinated. 

Daly said the data does not indicate COVID-19 variants, which are behind spikes in cases elsewhere, are playing a significant role in the state’s case count. The state uses random sampling to test for variants. Of the more than 3,000 random tests, about 400 have tested positive for a variant, Daly said. 

This is the third time the CDC’s has relaxed its recommendations in recent months.

In March, it said it was safe to gather inside under two conditions: everyone was vaccinated or you were gathering with only one other household that does not include family members at high risk for COVID-19 complications. In early April, the CDC relaxed its guidelines again to say fully vaccinated people could travel in the United States without tests or quarantines.

In a recent poll, the UNH Survey Center found the state closely divided over ending the mask mandate: 48 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat supported lifting it, while 43 percent strongly or somewhat opposed it. 

Asked about resuming pre-COVID-19 activities, a large majority (81 percent) said they were comfortable eating at a restaurant sitting outside, 67 percent felt comfortable going to a hair salon, and 57 percent said they were ready to eat at a restaurant sitting inside. Going to a movie or a pub did not feel comfortable for most respondents (41 percent to both questions), nor did attending a large concert (32 percent).

In all cases, responses fell along party lines, with Republicans favoring fewer restrictions than Democrats.