Coronavirus

CDC Approves Less Masking Outdoors As Harris County Remains At Red Alert Level

President Joe Biden celebrated the new CDC mask recommendations as a step toward normalcy.
President Joe Biden celebrated the new CDC mask recommendations as a step toward normalcy. Screenshot
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control officially relaxed its guidelines for when U.S. residents should wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on Tuesday, issuing new rules that allow for some newfound flexibility in outdoor settings, especially for fully vaccinated folks as the agency continues to encourage non-vaccinated residents to get inoculated.

The CDC’s official stance as of Tuesday is that “Outdoor visits and activities pose minimal risk to fully vaccinated people themselves or to those around them,” so fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks outside in most situations.

However, the CDC still recommends vaccinated people wear masks outside if they’re attending a big crowded event like a live performance, parade or sporting event where it’s impossible to socially distance. The CDC guidelines also state that the fully vaccinated should keep wearing masks when indoors.

click to enlarge The CDC says mask wearing outside is still encouraged for the non-vaccinated in most situations. - SCREENSHOT
The CDC says mask wearing outside is still encouraged for the non-vaccinated in most situations.
Screenshot
In a White House speech celebrating the new mask guidelines, President Joe Biden urged people who still haven’t been vaccinated to get a shot as soon as possible.

“It’s never been easier. And once you’re fully vaccinated, you can go without a mask when you’re outside and away from big crowds,” Biden said Tuesday.

States that still required mask use outdoors like California, Massachusetts and New York quickly lifted those requirements once the CDC’s new recommendations were made public. That didn’t happen in Texas, of course, since Gov. Greg Abbott had already lifted his statewide mask regulations in mid-March, and had already prohibited local officials from enforcing mask rules of their own.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner celebrated the new CDC mask announcement Tuesday, calling it “an accomplishment we all share thanks to those of us who already made the choice to get vaccinated.”

“As more people get vaccinated,” Turner continued in a statement, “the CDC will continue loosening its guidance on who needs to wear a mask and when they should be used,” a not so subtle hint to those who don't like masks that the best way to get us closer to a maskless future is to hurry up and get vaccinated, especially now that walk-up vaccine appointments are widely available across the greater Houston area.

Turner also confirmed that “The City of Houston will require people to continue to wear face masks inside municipal buildings like City Hall and the George R. Brown Convention Center.”

Even as federal mask guidelines have loosened, the number of vaccinated Houston area residents continues to rise and the number of locals suffering from COVID-19 has fallen significantly from the troubling spikes of a few months ago, Harris County still remains at its highest coronavirus red alert designation according to the coronavirus threat level system County Judge Lina Hidalgo implemented in the summer of 2020. The county’s official recommendation remains that people should stay home unless absolutely necessary, guidance that clearly hasn’t been followed by the majority of county residents for months now.

Hidalgo has been criticized for not moving to lower the local threat level, including by Republican County Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, who have been attending Commissioners Court meetings in-person together at the county’s office while Hidalgo and her Democratic colleagues keep dialing-in from home.

click to enlarge According to the current metrics, Harris County still has a ways to go to get out of red alert-mode. - SCREENSHOT
According to the current metrics, Harris County still has a ways to go to get out of red alert-mode.
Screenshot

Of the five indicators recommended by Harris County Public Health to determine the local threat level, three of them have improved enough to warrant a potential rollback: total countywide COVID-19 hospitalizations, the percent of hospital beds full with coronavirus patients and the trend of new daily cases have all been moving downward on average over the past 14-days.

However, Harris County’s two-week average for daily new COVID-19 cases per day is still too high according to the county’s guidelines, and the county’s two-week average coronavirus test positivity rate is at 10.6 percent, higher than the county’s 5 percent threshold for lowering the threat level.

Until all five of those last two metrics improve — or the county revamps how it calculates the local threat level — Harris County will still officially be in the red alert zone.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards