New outdoor mask-wearing guidelines to takes effect

RHODE ISLAND — As of today, fully vaccinated Rhode Islanders will no longer need to wear a mask outside. 

The Rhode Island Department of Health and Gov. Dan McKee announced the change to mask-wearing guidelines on Tuesday, placing the Ocean State more in line with recommendations from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

“I hope today’s updated guidance from the CDC will encourage even more Rhode Islanders to get vaccinated,” the governor said on Tuesday. “Vaccinated people have more flexibility when it comes to when and where they are recommended to wear masks.”

According to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, unmasked outdoor activities for fully vaccinated individuals is generally safe, though the CDC continues “to recommend masking in crowded outdoor settings and venues, such as packed stadiums and concerts where there is decreased ability to maintain physical distance and where many unvaccinated people may also be present.”

An individual isn’t considered fully vaccinated until 14 days after their final recommended dose, and even then, they’ll still need to wear a mask indoors for the foreseeable future. 

This new recommendation for fully vaccinated Rhode Islanders comes on the heels of more lax guidelines that are meant to take place on May 7. 

Last Thursday, McKee had announced that beginning on May 7, Rhode Islanders would still be required to wear masks indoors, but could forgo mask wearing outside if there were more than three feet of social distance. 

All industries — from gyms, retail shops and salons, to venues of assembly, houses of worship and offices — will also be allowed to return to 80 percent capacity with three feet of spacing. In three weeks time, on May 28, those industries will be allowed to return to full capacity with three feet of spacing.

“It’s a little too early to put a ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign up, but we’re getting ready to order that sign,” McKee said at Thursday’s press conference. “But we have to make sure the people in the State of Rhode Island understand that the work is still ahead of us. Over the next several weeks, we need to make sure we’re disciplined and we’re following the protocols that were put in place.”

“We’re only here, at this point, because we are doing an extraordinary job in terms of getting shots in arms,” he added. “We know that getting shots in arms is exactly what we need, to make sure everyone’s safe.”

More than half a million people have received at least one dose, according to statistics from the Rhode Island Department of Health, and a third of the state is already fully vaccinated. According to McKee, Rhode Island is ahead of the curve on vaccination rates, ranking eighth nationally for first doses and fifth for second doses. 

The Ocean State still has a long way to go before life can return to normal, and the governor made a plea to unvaccinated Rhode Islanders to book an appointment so the state can fully reopen its economy and the schools, while still keeping everyone safe. 

In addition to increased capacity at shops and restaurants, there’s also some good news on the horizon for the wedding and catering industries. Beginning May 7, catered events will be allowed 80 percent capacity, with a cap of 200 guests indoors and 500 guests outdoors, according to Commerce Secretary Stephan Pryor. Testing will no longer be required, though still encouraged, and as of May 28, there’ll be no caps on attendees, indoor standing services and cocktail hours, and open dance floors. 

“We’re not at the finish line yet, but we’re going to do everything we can to get there safely,” McKee said. 

Rhode Island Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott also stressed the important role vaccinations play in reopening the economy, and that these new lax guidelines are because of our current vaccination numbers.

“These changes are really geared towards people who are fully vaccinated,” Alexander-Scott said. “By fully vaccinated, I mean you’ve had all of your recommended doses, and two weeks have passed.”

“The key, with that, is when you are fully vaccinated, that’s when you can have the protection and confidence to go out and enjoy as our economy reopens,” she added. 

The risk of transmission is much lower outside, and Rhode Islanders are still encouraged to “Take It Outside,” but there are still some risk at play, and this should not dissuade anyone from getting fully vaccinated. 

“If you choose to go within less than six feet of someone for a sustained period of time, regardless of what the requirements are in various settings, your risk for coronavirus is higher if you are not fully vaccinated,” Alexander-Scott said. 

“This is where personal decision comes into play, and we’ve been together long enough that we are confident that you have the information you need to make the right decisions,” she said. “If you’re not vaccinated and you show up to a church, or a store, or a gym, and it’s really crowded, you should think twice about going inside. You should think, deliberately, about getting vaccinated so you can enjoy some of those things.” 

The landscape is wildly changing, according to Alexander-Scott, and every day you’re not vaccinated, your risks get higher and higher. These new lax guidelines coming into play, she reiterated, are meant for those who are already fully vaccinated. 

Progress on reopening the economy comes with conditions and caveats, according to Pryor, but they are critical to ensuring the state is reopening responsibly. 

RIDOH Executive Director of COVID-19 Response Thomas McCarthy called this a critical week for vaccinations — especially since all adults 16 years of age and older recently became eligible. The Department of Health is on track to vaccinated even more people this week than last, and the state anticipates a large percentage of Rhode Islanders will be vaccinated by May 28.

The state has built out its vaccine capacity with the help of five state-run sites, three regional-municipal sites, and dozens and dozens of local pharmacies and health clinics. Altogether, the state has about 150 vaccination locations, and can boast that 97 percent of residents live within 10 miles of one of these sites. 

“It’s not just about protecting yourself, but protecting those who can not be vaccinated,” McCarthy said. “I got my first shot this week on Tuesday at Sockanosset, because I want to stay healthy and safe. But even more importantly, because I have two young children that are too young to be vaccinated right now.” 

“So do you part — get your shot,” he added. “Help others get their shots. Protect yourself, your loved ones and all Rhode Islanders.”

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