With Hugs and Haircuts, U.S. Epidemiologists Start Returning (Carefully!) to Everyday Life

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More said masks were necessary in outdoor situations when distance couldn’t be maintained, like picnicking or hiking. A quarter said masks were always necessary then.

“Think of always ensuring two of three: masks, distancing, outdoors, particularly if among nonvaccinated individuals,” said Eyal Oren, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University.

When it comes to outdoor activities with large crowds where it is hard to maintain distance, like at a concert or protest, the epidemiologists were almost all in agreement that masks were still necessary, regardless of vaccination status. Some suggested continuing to avoid such events if possible. “There will almost certainly be vaccinated and unvaccinated people mixing in such an event,” said Steve Ostroff, an epidemiologist with a private consulting practice.

The endless decision-making about how to behave in the pandemic remains complicated. But risk calculations are beginning to change. Eventually, pandemic decision-making for vaccinated people could become less about protecting society at large, and more about one’s own willingness to take on risk.

“I think that when all the high-risk groups are vaccinated, it is time to shift attention to letting everyone decide for themselves what risks they are comfortable with for themselves,” said Anders Huitfeldt, an epidemiologist at the University of Southern Denmark.

Some epidemiologists say this shift can happen as soon as individuals are vaccinated: “Being vaccinated should throw open the floodgates to everything you could do before,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory.

But many said coronavirus precautions remained important for protecting high-risk people and slowing the virus’s spread, even for vaccinated people: “While I am comfortable taking personal risks, I would not tolerate risks that could harm others,” said Kevin Andresen, who leads the Covid response team at the Colorado Department of Public Health. “Covid precautions protect everyone, not just me.”