Vaccinated people in the US will be allowed to stop wearing their face masks in most settings.
Masks are no longer being recommended for vaccinated people when they are in crowded places outdoors and in most indoors settings – and they won’t have to follow social distancing measures either.
The Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) changed its guidance for fully vaccinated people on Thursday.
US President Joe Biden said the change marked “a great day for America”, adding: “If you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you’ve earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: greeting others with a smile.”
Masks will still need to be worn in crowded indoor settings such as buses, planes, hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters.
But the new rules will clear the way for the reopening of workplaces and schools as well as encouraging more people to get vaccinated.
The CDC said in its news release: “In the past couple of weeks, we have seen additional data to show these vaccines work in the real world, they stand up to the variants, and vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus.
“We needed to take the time to review the full body of evidence to get this right, and that’s how we came to this decision.”
CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said: “We have all longed for this moment – when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Some states still have mask rules and the guidance will not overturn this, but several state officials have said they will immediately review the requirements.
Some businesses have said they will stick with masks, with supermarket chain Kroger Co and department store chain Target among those saying their rules would not change for now.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association said: “It is critical for customers to remember the CDC announcement is guidance and that many state and local jurisdictions still have mask mandates in place that retailers must follow.”
American politicians were among the first to remove their masks indoors, with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly saying “free at last” as he left the chamber maskless.
In the House of Representatives, Republican Brian Mast stood and addressed Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying: “I ask that, given the updated CDC guidance, we all take off these stupid masks.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 585,000 Americans and, of more than 30 members of Congress infected, one – Ron Wright of Texas – died.
One of the biggest challenges for some US states is encouraging people to get vaccinated, and in some areas, jabs are going unused.
The governor of Ohio has now said that adults who have received at least one dose will be able to enter a lottery with a prize draw of $1m (£711,000) each Wednesday for five weeks.
Some politicians have criticised Mike DeWine’s “gameshow tactics” for wasting money that could be used to respond to the growing crisis, but he has said the real waste was lives being lost to COVID-19 when the vaccine is readily available.