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The CDC — finally — has new guidelines for reducing Covid-19 risk post-lockdowns

Lockdowns are largely over. The CDC has new guidelines for being safe out in the world.

People wearing masks sit at Gantry Plaza State Park, Long Island City, with the Manhattan skyline in the background on May 30, 2020.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

At long last, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new Covid-19 pandemic guidance documents to help the public minimize risk while venturing out into public spaces.

The CDC released two new guidance documents Friday. One is for individuals thinking about leaving the house to engage in activities like going to restaurants, nail salons, gyms, and the bank; traveling; and hosting small gatherings like cookouts. The other lists considerations for event planners (with the disclaimer that “these considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which gatherings must comply”).

These new documents come as some areas of the country — notably, Arizona, Florida, and the Carolinas — are starting to see indications of new Covid-19 spikes, likely due to relaxed social distancing policies that started weeks ago. Which is to say: Citizens probably could have used them a month ago.

But even now, the CDC’s recommendations are still broadly helpful and useful (although they come with a few omissions). Here are the highlights.

Individuals should wear masks, try to maintain distance from others, and limit the time of their interactions with one another

The main way people are getting sick with SARS-CoV-2 is from respiratory droplets spreading between people in close quarters. Droplets fly from people’s mouths and noses when they breathe, talk, or sneeze. Other people can breathe them in. The dose matters: The more you breathe in, the more likely you are to get sick. That’s the main risk, and that’s why face masks are an essential precaution (they help stop the droplets from spewing far from a person’s mouth or nose).

The CDC’s recommendations for individuals take this droplet spread into account, advocating for universal masking, enthusiastic hand-washing, keeping more than 6 feet away from other people, and limiting the amount of time you spend with others. Spending more time with people increases risks. (The CDC makes more specific recommendations for activities like dining out on its website.)

“In general,” the CDC writes, “the more closely you interact with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of Covid-19 spread.”

This all aligns with what experts have told Vox: People should think about Covid-19 risk in four dimensions — distance to other people, environment, activity, and time spent together. More distance is better, outdoors is safer than indoors, activities that involve lots of exhaling (like singing or shouting) are more dangerous than quieter ones, and a longer time spent with others is more dangerous than a shorter time.

Perhaps a helpful way to think about the risk is this: Imagine everyone is smoking, as Ed Yong suggested in the Atlantic, and you’d like to avoid inhaling as much smoke as possible. In a cramped indoor space, that smoke is going to get dense and heavy fast. If the windows are open, some of that smoke will blow away. If fewer people are in the space, less smoke will accumulate, and it might not waft over to you if you’re standing far enough away. But spend a lot of time in an enclosed space with those people, and the smoke grows denser.

The denser the smoke, the more likely it is to affect you. It’s the same with this virus: The more of it you inhale, the more likely you are to get sick.

As always, it’s important to stay home if you think you might have any symptoms of Covid-19. The CDC also recommends people think about their own risk for severe illness, and the risk of people they may be seeing. Older adults still have a greater risk of severe Covid-19 cases, as do people with underlying medical conditions. You may still want to limit time with these groups.

There are a few notable omissions in the CDC’s guidance for events

A lot of the same principles apply in the CDC’s guidance for event planners. More people, more time, more crowds, and less mask-wearing result in a more dangerous situation. Plus, the CDC advises, “the higher the level of community transmission in the area that the gathering is being held, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spreading during a gathering.”

For event planners, the CDC also provides guidance for the cleaning of restrooms, the need for ventilation, and modifying event space layouts with physical barriers to ensure social distancing.

There is a big thing, though, experts have pointed out, that the CDC has left out of the document. Notably: The document does not stress that indoor events are a much higher risk than outdoor events.

Speaking on a press call Friday, Jay Butler, the CDC deputy director for infectious diseases, was asked if these guidelines also apply to political rallies (like the ones President Donald Trump plans to soon hold for his supporters). Butler said only that the guidelines “were not intended to endorse any particular type of event.”

It’s hard for any guidelines to be comprehensive

You could read both of the CDC’s new guideline documents and still have some questions. “There’s nothing about precautions to take before going to church, no guidance about dating and sex and no explicit advice on a topic that some doctors say they get asked all the time: Is it OK to take the kids to visit grandparents?” the AP reports. And this is because it is difficult for the agency to lay out recommendations for every scenario.

Life is complicated, and Covid-19 complicates it further. There are endless possibilities you can think of in a risk assessment. So overall, when weighing risks, it’s just good to remember the mechanisms of how Covid-19 spreads (through breath and close contact), and keep them in mind no matter what situation you’re in. (Though if you want some guidelines for sexual interactions, New York City has you covered.)

Scientists recognize that no activity with other people during a pandemic is perfectly safe. Even an activity with distancing, in a scenario with universal masking, that’s in an outdoor space, does not drop the risk to zero. Still, we need to find a middle ground, and reduce the harm that can result from our actions whenever possible. And these guidelines can help do that.

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