CDC Relaxes COVID-19-Related Masking Rules

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP February 28, 2022

​The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new COVID-19-related metrics that will allow many communities to ease their indoor masking requirements. Employers may have continuing obligations under state and local laws, but many localities are also relaxing their pandemic-related safety rules.

"With widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. "Now, as the virus continues to circulate in our communities, we must focus our metrics beyond just cases in the community and direct our efforts toward protecting people at high risk for severe illness and preventing COVID-19 from overwhelming our hospitals and our health care systems."

About 70 percent of Americans live in areas where the CDC no longer recommends universal masking, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. "Obviously, if people want to wear a mask, because they're immunocompromised, because they have concerns about their [safety and] safety in their communities, they should have the ability to do that, but that is certainly a step forward," she said during a press briefing on Feb. 25.

We've gathered articles on masking rules from SHRM Online and other media outlets.

Risk Factors

The CDC's new guidelines focus on the following factors:

  • New COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days.
  • New COVID-19-related hospital admissions.
  • The percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Under the prior metrics, the CDC sorted counties into four risk categories—low, moderate, substantial and high—based on COVID-19 case numbers and test positivity rates. The agency recommended masking in public, indoor settings for communities with substantial or high community spread. 

The new guidance sorts counties into three groups: high, medium or low COVID-19 risk. Under the agency's guidance, indoor masking isn't necessary in areas with low risk. In areas with medium risk, the agency recommends that people talk to their health care providers about masking if they are immunocompromised or otherwise more likely to experience severe symptoms. The CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in public, indoor settings in high-risk areas.

(The Wall Street Journal)

Monitor the Latest Data

Employers can monitor the CDC's website for updates on the risk levels in the locations where they operate. The CDC developed new tools to help employers and other community leaders decide what prevention steps to take based on the latest data. "People may choose to mask at any time," the agency noted. "People with symptoms, a positive test or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask."


Review Workplace Policies

"Employers may wish to review their workplace masking requirements and other COVID-19 protocols in light of the new guidance, as well as the diminishing restrictions at the state and local level," said Fiona Ong, an attorney with Shawe Rosenthal in Baltimore.

Although the CDC's guidance is not mandatory, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has typically followed the CDC's recommendations. "It is worth noting that OSHA's current COVID-19 guidance references the prior CDC recommendations and will undoubtedly be updated to conform to the new recommendations," Ong said. 

By complying with the CDC's recommendations, employers can also show that they are meeting their obligations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act's general duty clause, which requires employers to provide a safe workplace that is free from known hazards.


Tracking Evolving State Laws

Employers must review state and local COVID-19-related rules in addition to federal guidelines. "Governors and public health officials across the country implemented stringent mitigation measures to help contain the spread of COVID-19," noted law firm Littler Mendelson. "Numerous jurisdictions have encouraged—or mandated—citizens to wear face coverings when out in public, especially when social distancing cannot be maintained effectively." 

Additionally, some directives require employers to provide masks to their employees. Here's an updated list of state masking requirements.

(Littler Mendelson)

Visit SHRM's resource hub page on COVID-19 and the coronavirus



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