With COVID-19 cases declining in some states and vaccinations ramping up, a number of states are rolling back restrictions on businesses and mask mandates implemented at the pandemic’s peak to help stop the spread of the virus.
Massachusetts is among 26 states that currently have statewide mask mandates in place, according to the AARP. The current measure requires people to wear face coverings in public both indoors or outdoors, regardless of whether they can stay 6 feet away from others. But does such a requirement make Massachusetts one of the strictest in the country when it comes to mask rules?
A review of the measures in other states found that mask-wearing requirements vary. Last week, New Hampshire joined more than a dozen other states that have lifted mask mandates, and other New England states like Connecticut and Rhode Island have announced plans to drop outdoor mask-wearing requirements next month. Meanwhile those in Colorado and West Virginia currently don’t need to wear masks outside. Colorado also has an indoor mask-wearing requirement specific to individual communities’ COVID-19 infection rates.
But Massachusetts is among the strictest in the nation because the state requires face coverings when outdoors, even when people are able to maintain 6 feet of distance from others. The current mandate has been in place since November, when the winter surge was ramping up. It tightened a mandate implemented at the start of the pandemic last March that required people to wear masks only when they couldn’t social distance.
The state is not alone in implementing this requirement. The masking requirements in Maine and New Mexico appear to be similar to those in Massachusetts, according to language on those states’ COVID-19 websites. In Maine, people are required to wear face coverings in public settings “regardless of the ability to maintain physical distance,” and New Mexico’s Department of Public Health advises that “everyone is required to wear a mask or cloth face covering when in public except when drinking, eating, or under medical instruction.”
Most states with mask mandates do require masks while outdoors, but note that residents are exempt from wearing masks outside when they are able to maintain 6 feet of social distance. California, Hawaii, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, and Vermont are among the states with guidance that explicitly states people can remove masks outdoors if they are able to distance.
Currently, Rhode Island requires people to wear masks in public spaces, but Governor Dan McKee announced Thursday that as of May 7, residents will be able to forego wearing masks while outdoors. And in Connecticut, the mask mandate will be indoors only on May 19.
Some states, like Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee never had statewide mask mandates, while others, like Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota and Texas, had the requirements in place at one point during the pandemic, but the measures have since been lifted.
Governor Charlie Baker said last week that he had no immediate plans to change the state’s mask mandate, even as neighboring statesannounced relaxed measures. But Baker told reporters on Thursday that he may “have some stuff to say before the end of April ” in regards to COVID-19 measures in the state.
“For now, people need to continue to follow the rules and guidance,” he added.
After Texas and Mississippi announced last month that they would remove mask mandates in the states, President Biden denounced the moves as “Neanderthal thinking,” and the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to continue to wear masks regardless of states’ individual measures.
“I will also note that, you know, every individual has the power to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide, for personal health, for public health, for the health of their loved ones, and communities,” CDC chief Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 task force briefing in early March. I would still encourage individuals to wear masks, to socially distance, and to do the right thing to protect their own health.”
The CDC’s current guidance on masks says that wearing them “may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others, or with people who live in your household,” but noting that some areas may have more strict mask mandates.
Public health experts are debating whether masks should be required while people are outdoors. Data show COVID-19 is most transmissible in indoor, poorly ventilated spaces.
In an appearance on The Today Show on Thursday, Walensky said the agency is considering updating its guidance on outdoor mask-wearing.
“This is a question that we’re looking at,” Walensky said about whether people need to wear masks while they are outside and not near others, while noting that the country is still experiencing thousands of new daily infections and hundreds of new daily deaths.
“We will be looking at the outdoor masking question but it’s also in the context of the fact that we still have people who are dying of COVID,” she said.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said on Twitter on Sunday that he thinks outdoor masking mandates will be lifted in more states because “outdoor infections are rare and occur when large groups gather in packed spaces, such as rallies.”
“I think it’s pretty safe to be out and about walking around without a mask, especially in large parts of the country where infection numbers are under reasonable control,” Jha said on CNN earlier that day.
“Indoors, of course, is where most of the infections happen so that needs to remain for a while longer. But I think we really do have to look at outdoor activity and see it as largely a safe thing, unless you have congregations of large numbers of people together for long periods of time,” he said.
Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.