In less than a month, Californians fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can begin shedding their face coverings indoors — but will they still need to keep their distance from others?
Right now, the future of the state's pandemic physical distancing guidelines is unclear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physical distancing, except when required by state or local rules, including business and workplace guidelines.
California officials announced Monday that they would follow the mask guidelines starting June 15, when the state plans a full reopening. But they didn't mention anything about social distancing.
The state has said that when it retires its color-coded reopening blueprint on June 15, many sectors that have been forced to limit capacity can return to business as usual . But the specifics for physical distancing have not been spelled out.
In response to an email inquiry Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health said it would "provide additional guidance and details related to specific sectors" as it gets closer to the June 15 reopening date.
The state health officer's order at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 said people should "at all times practice social distancing," and California's tiered reopening system spells out specific distancing requirements for businesses and activities. If the state does relax its guidelines for physical distancing for vaccinated people, counties may maintain stricter policies.
But regardless of guidelines, are there added risks to not staying 6 feet apart from strangers, even for vaccinated people?
The CDC and many experts agree that vaccines provide strong protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19, and more and more real-world evidence shows that vaccinated people are not likely to get infected at all. This is why the CDC is recommending that individuals who are vaccinated can resume many pre-pandemic activities.
But when June 15 rolls around, UC Berkeley infectious disease expert John Swartzberg said he's personally likely to continue with health measures, despite being fully vaccinated — though for him, masking takes priority over physical distancing.
"I'll stop social distancing before I stop masking inside," he said. "Masking is more important than social distancing. If everyone had a mask on, the risk is minuscule."
At the same time, Swartzberg said, people need to understand that these are guidelines, and we all need to find our own comfort zones when navigating situations as we ease out of the pandemic.
George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert with UCSF, said when vaccinated people stop wearing their masks in the Bay Area, social distancing won't really matter at that point.
"It's moot," he said. "The risk is so low."
But since much of the Bay Area has been especially careful with pandemic health measures, he doesn't think people will suddenly stop social distancing.
"I think people are going to want to spread out anyway," he said. "I don't see those (markers) on the ground coming up anytime soon."
Where social distancing will definitely continue, Rutherford said, is at crowded events and situations where most people are unvaccinated, such as schools.
Solano County health officials said they haven't reached out to the state for specific guidance on social distancing after June 15, but the county anticipates it will "recommend masking and social distancing in certain limited settings, for example, concerts and other large events."
The San Francisco Department of Public Health said it supports the state's decision to require masks in most indoor settings until June 15, and that the CDC's announcement last week "underscores the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine."
"Additional state guidance on face coverings and social distancing is forthcoming and we believe that we will follow the CDC and CDPH guidance, which will continue to emerge over the next weeks," a statement from the department said. "Barring a significant increase in the number of cases locally, we do not envision an extension on social distancing rules."
Matt Willis, health officer for Marin County, said his department will continue to follow state guidance, including advising people who are vaccinated to maintain physical distancing and avoid crowds where possible. But especially after masking is relaxed, he said, safety measures such as social distancing become more of a personal choice and an exercise in personal judgment.
"Even now, we know it's not like everyone is walking around with a yardstick," Willis said. "There's an etiquette that has evolved where people are further distanced from one another, and I think that's probably going to be preserved culturally and it is protective. I think we'll continue to encourage a healthy level of distancing moving forward, but just as advice."
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