Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday relaxed outdoor masking guidelines — recommending vaccinated people do not need to wear face coverings outdoors except in large gatherings — some vaccinated San Franciscans remained leery. 

“People are delicate, so I am going to continue to use” the mask, explained Marta Jacinto, a tamale vendor on 22nd and Mission, in Spanish. Jacinto, who is vaccinated, had not heard the CDC’s Tuesday morning announcement. But, when given the update, she said: “It’s good, but also, you have to have caution.” 

Ed, a 40-year-old worker at an auto body shop on 17th Street between Mission and Valencia streets, also said he has been fully vaccinated — for three months. But he shook his head when he found out about the new guidelines.  

“That’s not really smart — that’s not a good choice,” he said. “People are getting hurt.”

Infectious disease experts, however, all agreed that outdoor Covid-19 transmission is extremely rare, and that the CDC guidance is long overdue. They said the distance people usually maintain outdoors, as well as outdoor conditions like breezes that dilute respiratory particles, greatly reduce the chances of infection. 

Dr. Monica Gandhi, a UCSF infectious disease expert, made a clear recommendation on Tuesday: “We should all throw off our masks today and not wear [them] outside in San Francisco.” 

The reasons are manifold, she said. For one, the data has long shown that Covid-19 transmission is 3,000 times lower in outdoor settings, compared to indoors. She also said that the city is reaching a 70 percent first-dose vaccination rate. Furthermore, she said, San Francisco case rates and hospitalizations remain extremely low

Gandhi noted that San Francisco began its mask mandate in April of last year, and it would be somewhat poetic to lift it a year later. “There’s a really lovely symmetry to doing it around the same time,” she said, noting that indoor masking requirements should remain in place for a while longer. 

Specifically, the CDC says that vaccinated people are safe unmasked when walking, running, hiking, biking, and dining outdoors either alone or in small groups. And even people who are not vaccinated are safe maskless while exercising outdoors with members of their family or participating in small outdoor gatherings. The guidelines do caution that unvaccinated people should wear masks while dining outdoors (between bites, presumably). And both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should wear masks at large gatherings, the guidelines say.  

But it’s unclear how long it will take for the city to officially lift its local masking mandate. Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, noted that CDC guidelines do not “have the force of law on states.” 

And indeed, the San Francisco Department of Public Health said that the city must wait for the state to ease its restrictions. “We anticipate that we will adopt the guidelines as soon as the state allows,” a health department spokesperson said in an email. 

“In the meantime, and because it is impossible to tell who is vaccinated and who is not, we recommend that those who are fully vaccinated (two weeks post final dose) continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing in public, and when gathering with unvaccinated people from more than one household,” the spokesperson added. 

Rutherford said it would be wise for the state to conform to the new guidelines — but it will be a difficult balancing act because California’s many counties are facing different challenges. “You don’t want to issue something that works for San Francisco and makes things worse for farmers in the Central Valley,” he said. 

“This is the time to be careful, not overly liberal,” he added. “You don’t want to spike the ball at the five-yard line.” 

But in a place like San Francisco, where vaccination rates are high and infection rates are low, it might be time for residents to begin unwinding from their pandemic anxieties, said Dr. Jake Scott, an infectious disease specialist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Though, he adds, it might take a while. 

“We need to get back some sort of normal life, and people should understand there is a robust amount of data to support” the new CDC recommendations, he said. But recognizing that the pandemic was an unprecedented event in our lifetimes, “it’s going to take a long time to undo the psychological effects of all the mitigation strategies.” 

Matt Pacheko, a 23-year-old DoorDash worker who was visiting a bank at 22nd and Mission streets on Tuesday morning, seemed to agree. He is from Brazil, among the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, and he said five of his friends have died from the virus. 

He thinks masking will be woven into our culture for years to come. “It can even help us protect each other from other things,” he said. 

But Jose Cabrillo, a butcher at the Evergreen Market on Mission Street near 21st, appeared ready to shed his mask outdoors. “I got used to the mask, but I can also get used to not wearing it again,” he said. “I am not surprised, it’s just more of a relief.” 

“We knew that this was going to end someday,” he added, “and we have to slowly adapt again to what it used to be like.” 

Update, April 27, 3:45 p.m.: The state will be following the CDC masking guidance, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday. “CA will be aligning with the new CDC guidelines,” he tweeted. “If you’re fully vaccinated, outdoors, and not in a large crowd — you do not need to wear a mask.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

Clara-Sophia Daly is a multimedia storyteller and reporter who has worked both in print and audio. A graduate of Skidmore College where she studied International Affairs and Media/Film studies, she enjoys working at the intersection of art and politics, and focusing on the stories of individuals to reveal larger themes.

Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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  1. This is absolute rubbish! Has the CDC forgotten there’s other health threats out here like deadly INFLUENZA A and sometimes B? How about TB? The common cold? MENIGITIS? Mumps? Chickenpox? CMV (cytomegalovirus –herpesvirus group Infection)? H-plori? Pinworms? Fifth Disease? Hand/Foot/Mouth Disease? Giardia? Hep A and B? Impetigo? Epstein Bar Virus? Streptococcal infection? Etc…FOOLS. The Covid Pandemic was the best thing that ever happened in healthcare settings. ALL HEALTHCARE WORKERS SHOULD CONTINUE WEARING MASKS ALL YEAR AROUND PATIENTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DUH.

  2. I know it is really horrible to talk about actual data and science when discussing masks. But let’s take a moment to look at the CDC data in their most cited and longest running mask study. It was a 1.2% reduction in hospitalization if over 65 and a 2.9% reduction for 40-64. It was a slightly better 5.6% for adults 18-64 overall. A very important reduction that saved lives, but one that is far off from the perception people have about them. Sadly nobody will ever discuss this like adults. You either are “pro-mask” or “anti-mask” and I am pro-science.

    As the rate of possible infection goes down (we are dropping 50% cases/hospitalizations every two weeks in California since mid-January), the merit of masking also goes down because of how math works. Distancing was the only real way to avoid transmission, and thankfully with the amount of people vaccinated, we don’t need to avoid one another forever. It is ok everyone, we can believe the science and a year of research about masks.

    Nobody under 21 has died from Covid in SF. Only 6% of deaths are under 49 (most with pre-existing health conditions). And the most vulnerable groups are nearly entirely vaccinated.

    SF stats:

    Here is the CDC study if curious:

  3. As a species we seem to a burdened with a lot of inertia. It takes us forever to adjust to new circumstances, change course even when ruin is right in front of us. And we hang on to old habits long after they’re useful.

    1. Except ehhh it is pretty natural to not want to wear a mask on top of the places you breath when there is not a medical reason for it. It is 100% virtue signaling and shaming. SF is disgusting with the fear of covid right now.

  4. San Francisco residents are over the top fear mongering and OCD. The “masking” here has been extreme. I have seen people fight about an 8 month old needing a mask. Enough already. Seriously, we need to follow the data this is no way to live. Wear your mask for decades if you want but some of us need to move on.

    1. Amen. San Franciscans seems to thrive on authoritarianism and will take any external validation that lets them tell other people how to live.

    2. It is crazy. BEYOND crazy. And shocking. And I say this as a lifelong democrat, 20 year SF resident, and come from a family of nurses and doctors. Get a grip people! We either trust the science or we don’t. And not a single person under 21 has died from Covid in 14 months. So think about that before you scream “won’t someone please think of the children.” With 3 cases per 100k covid is a very low risk in SF right now. Especially for kids and vaccinated people, and obviously people over 65 (the main % of deaths from Covid in SF) are nearly entirely vaxxed.

  5. Does anyone even remember …. And
    … And Jesus, that…… ???
    Now, in 2021, they know not what they do. “FIRST AS TRAGEDY…….. AND THEN AS FARCE.” Skynet is here now, woe to the human race.
    Stay up, my people.

    1. I don’t understand how they expect people to social distance in a city.

      You can social distance in a suburb, but there’s no way you can social distance while walking on Valencia St.

      Pretending that it’s possible is just going to get people killed.

      1. You are hilarious—and misinformed. Vaccinated or not, outside transmission is not a risk. Do you not believe in science? You don’t trust Dr. Fauci? I thought everyone in SF would trust science. Please try reading CDC guidelines. “Walk, run, roll, or bike outdoors” and you do not need to wear one unless at a large event like a concert or sports event. Walking Valencia is not a large event. You are OUTSIDE.