a man wearing a face mask

The Director of the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offered a groundbreaking press conference on Thursday, May 13th, in which the US CDC stated fully vaccinated people may return to indoor and outdoor activities without masks, or social distancing.

For the first time since the pandemic started, studies conducted in the US and Israel concur that fully vaccinated people should be able to take their masks off and end social distancing measures indoors, and out.

The CDC updated its guidance accordingly. Of course, there are a few caveats, mostly regarding public spaces and caution for the immunocompromised.

Notably – people on planes will still be required to wear masks, despite the air on planes being up to 10x safer than other shared indoor environments, thanks to HEPA filters and other health measures rarely found anywhere on the ground.

It’s yet another positive development, but not one without quirks or questions. Still, the message is exciting – life is getting back to normal.

CDC: Masks And Social Distancing To End, But Not On Planes

The CDC’s Director, Rochelle Walensky, offered the elating news during a Thursday press conference which highlighted the overwhelming success of vaccination in the fight against covid-19. At the conference, Walensky offered…

“anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physical distancing.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director, US CDC
a man wearing a face mask

The news should mean things like summer concerts, sporting events, dining and all the things humans once relished should be feasible and enjoyable, yet again. Dr. Walensky also noted that they have not found any variants, with which vaccines aren’t effective.

Yet one area was notably left out of the overwhelming positive world news, once again: air travel.

“Right now, we still have the requirement to wear masks when you travel. (CDC) will continue to assess, but right now for travel, we continue to require everyone to wear masks.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director, US Centers for Disease Control

Masks will still be required on planes and in public places including grocery stores and hospitals, likely until autumn at the earliest, even if a flight is full of vaccinated people. This may be due in part to the development of forthcoming verification procedures, to easily vet vaccinated proof.

“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”

Dr Rochelle Walensky, Director, US CDC
an airplane with a logo on it

Studies from the US Department of Defense, conducted using real commercial aircraft, to assess the viability of moving passengers during covid-19, found that risk of covid-19 transmission was up to 10x less likely on airplanes than other shared indoor spaces.

Those figures were attributed to particle studies demonstrating how air filters directly down to the ground on planes and is passed through HEPA filtration systems every 90 seconds. Even hospital air systems were estimated to be 5x less effective in stopping covid-19 transmission in the study, than commercial airplanes.

No Vaccinated Exemption From Covid-19 Testing

Some countries have dropped pre-flight, or pre-travel covid-19 testing requirements for vaccinated travelers, falling in line with minimal risk factors shown in all studies of vaccinated people.

The US CDC has not yet updated its guidance, or testing mandates for inbound US travelers headed to the United States. The USA still requires all international visitors to obtain a PCR or antigen test within 3 days prior to flight.

Testing has however been made easier, with video supervised ‘at home’ testing now authorized as proof of travel for entering the USA.

This means travelers can acquire inexpensive covid-19 tests at home, take them with them on their travels, and complete the test under video supervision from their hotel or accommodation abroad, before returning to the USA.

Despite questions to come, today’s news may be the most exciting in well over a year.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Sad to say but if it’s preferable for unvaccinated folks to wear masks on planes (even if they happen to have a negative test result), then it’s better for everyone to keep wearing them. I could not conceive of a time when FAs would have the bandwidth to go up and down the aisles inspecting vaccination cards to determine if this person should mask up but that one is fine without it. For situations like flying, it’s going to have to be all or nothing for the foreseeable future and, very unfortunately, I am going to prefer it being “all.” It brings me no joy to say that.

    1. I think you’re right. It’s impossible to police, and we’ve sadly seen humanity will do its worst, given the chance. I don’t personally mind it much, but I’d love to see creative or tech based solutions, such as QR code scanning, etc, allowing people with proof of vaccination to opt out at some point. Complicated issue for sure.

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