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Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance

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Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October 2020. 

Gov. Ralph Northam amended Virginia’s mask mandate to match recently issued guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The changes, announced in a Thursday press release, went into effect immediately, according to Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky. They allow fully vaccinated Virginians to “participate in outdoor activities and recreation without a mask,” based on language from the CDC. Those include solo activities and small outside gatherings of fully vaccinated people.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second shot (or two weeks after their first, in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine). Neither the state nor the CDC has specified whether there’s an exact size limit for “small” outdoor gatherings, but Yarmosky said the administration is “asking folks to use their best judgment.”

Even fully vaccinated Virginians will still be required to wear masks at crowded outdoor events such as concerts, sporting events and graduations, she added. The state’s existing industry guidelines for those sectors, including amusement parks and outdoor entertainment venues, will remain in place. And there will be no changes to the state’s existing indoor mask mandate, which require all residents aged five and older to wear face coverings in indoor communal settings such as waiting rooms, public transit and libraries.

The CDC has been gradually updating its guidance for fully vaccinated people since March, but has come under fire for recommendations viewed by many as confusing and — in some instances — too hesitant. A growing body of research supports that less than 10of COVID-19 infections are transmitted outdoors, even among unvaccinated individuals. 

The agency has also issued guidance that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors without masks or physical distancing. They can even meet indoors with unvaccinated people from the same household without wearing masks, as long as those people are at low-risk for severe disease, according to the latest guidelines.

Ultimately, the guidance does little to materially change Virginia’s existing order, which went into effect nearly a year ago. Yarmosky pointed out that the state has always allowed people to go maskless outdoors as long as they could maintain six feet of physical distancing (though fully vaccinated residents no longer have to worry about spacing outdoors). The state’s indoor mandate never applied to private residences.

The governor’s modified executive order also pushes up the effective date for expanded capacity at outdoor sporting events. Last week, Northam announced that attendance limits for most outdoor events would increase from 500 to 1,000 spectators by May 15.

The expanded capacity for those specific events will now go into effect immediately, Yarmosky said. According to the release, it will allow “additional spectators to participate in final games of the current high school sports season and the summer sports season.”

Northam has gradually been relaxing the state’s restrictions since February, when new cases and hospitalizations dropped significantly after a major holiday surge. He’s also cited growing vaccination numbers. As of Thursday, nearly 44of Virginians had received at least one dose, and close to 30 percent were fully vaccinated.

Last week, the governor said he was hopeful that restrictions could be further rolled back in June. Yarmosky said that could mean putting an end to all capacity restrictions on businesses within the next two months if vaccinations continue to rise while cases, deaths and hospitalizations fall.

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