CDC Now Says Kids Can Skip Masks While Outdoors at Summer Camp

Federal health officials have announced new mask guidelines for kids at camp this summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Friday that children who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks indoors or outside at camp.

However, children who are not fully vaccinated should still wear masks outside when they are in a crowd or in sustained close contact with others indoors, the CDC said. Also, 3 to 6 feet of social distancing is still required for unvaccinated kids but not for those who are vaccinated. The guidelines were updated after the CDC said on May 13 that fully vaccinated Americans were no longer required to wear masks outdoors and in most indoor settings.

Once eligible kids in the 12 to 15 age bracket get their second dose of the vaccine by mid-summer, "it's going to be a camp experience that is much more like [before the pandemic]," said Erin Sauber-Schatz, head of the CDC's Community Interventions and Critical Populations Task Force.

Children Masks Summer Camp
Children play in Manhattan's Bryant Park on May 27. On May 19, all pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, venue capacities and restaurant curfews, were lifted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below:

The guidance is the first in a wave of updates that will incorporate the agency's recent decisions on masks and social distancing. Last week, the CDC said Americans don't have to be as cautious about using masks and social distancing outdoors, and that fully vaccinated people generally don't need to follow such measures indoors, either.

Previously, the CDC advised that just about all people at camps should wear masks with only a few exceptions, like while they are eating, drinking or swimming.

But that was before U.S adults began getting vaccinations in December, and before the U.S. government authorized Pfizer vaccinations for kids as young as 12.

About 2.5 million of the roughly 17 million U.S. kids in that age group have gotten at least one dose of vaccine since it was authorized less than three weeks ago. A second dose is also required, three weeks after the first, and then it takes two more weeks before the vaccine fully takes effect.

Camps likely will have mixed groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated kids and should be prepared to have mask and distancing guidelines in place, CDC officials said.

Some public health officials and others have criticized that announcement, partly because it seemed to conflict with other CDC guidance.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, wrote this week to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky that "parents, caregivers and immunocompromised patients across the country may now have to navigate a confusing patchwork of recommendations and requirements in order to keep themselves and their families safe."

Not helping matters: Agency officials have said their decision was based on growing medical evidence, but CDC officials provided few specifics. The agency did not post a science brief detailing the supporting evidence until Thursday.

The U.S. vaccination campaign has been an apparent success, with coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths declining. But some public health experts saw the rollback as prematurely removing a measure that had helped drive that success. Some also faulted the agency for poorly communicating the decision.

"There is no evidence that states, businesses, event organizers and so on were given any heads up that this announcement was pending," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pandemic researcher at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

A major concern has been that it can be hard to know who's vaccinated, so unvaccinated people could quietly go maskless, causing cases to rise.

Asked how camps will sort out who is vaccinated and who is not, Sauber-Schatz said those decisions will have to be made at the local level.

That concern was raised Thursday during a virtual U.S. Chamber of Commerce event with Walensky.

Suzanne Clark, the organization's president, said many people were relieved that vaccinated could go many places without masks. "But I think employers are still trying to figure out what that means," she added, noting questions like whether business owners can ask employees and customers if they've been vaccinated.

At the same forum, Polly Hanson of the American Public Transportation Association noted the apparent contradiction between CDC guidance that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks and a federal directive that says people who ride on public transportation have to wear them. She asked when that might change.

Redlener said in an email that the public is confused, in part because rules vary by state and city.

"Lack of consistency from one place to another is creating even more confusion," she said.