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How the New CDC Mask Guidance Affects You

In Atlanta and the metro area, some restrictions are going away, but the state is not out of the woods just yet

A pile of surgical masks
This week, the CDC and City of Atlanta eased up their masking guidance. (Alicia Llop/Getty Images)

Since the start of the pandemic, Black residents in metro Atlanta have been hit especially hard. Despite a drop in cases statewide, Black patients make up 40% of hospitalizations while representing one-third of the population in the state. 

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted the focus of its guidance for mask wearing, a key mitigation strategy through the pandemic. In addition to tracking new cases, the updated guidance for masking indoors relies on the impact COVID-19 is having on hospitals in a county, with three community risk levels: low, medium, and high. 

In Atlanta, Mayor Andre Dickens lifted the city’s mandatory indoor mask mandate, which means people can feel free to skip indoor masking. However, that’s not the case for the rest of metro Atlanta. 

What’s in the new guidance, and are you free to go maskless in your community? We explain more below. 

What’s the new guidance?

Previously, mask guidance was solely determined by looking at the number of new COVID-19 cases in a given time period. By this measure, the majority of the country was considered to be in a high transmission area. Under this model, the majority of metro Atlanta was under the “substantial” category of COVID-19 spread, the second-highest level in the CDC’s four-tiered transmission system. 

Now, while the updated guidance still looks at new cases, it emphasizes hospitalizations and the percentage of beds occupied in any county. The switch puts most of the metro Atlanta area in a low risk category. The new guidance focuses on three indicators: 

  • The number of new cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period
  • New COVID-19 hospitalizations
  • The percentage of hospital beds occupied in the county (a seven-day average) 

What does it mean if I live in a low, medium or high level community?

Well, that depends. Here’s what we mean:

  • If you’re vaccinated, and live in a low or medium level community, you don’t have to worry about masking indoors, the CDC says. Maintain good quality ventilation, and continue following the CDC’s isolation guidelines if you end up testing positive for COVID-19. People who have conditions that put them at higher risk for severe illness should implement a plan for rapid testing and chat with their health care provider about antiviral treatments. 
  • People in medium level communities should talk to their providers about whether or not they should wear a mask indoors if they’re at risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Anyone who lives in a medium level community with someone who is at high risk for severe illness should consider wearing a mask around that person, and ensure they have access to rapid testing. 
  • Those who live in a high level community should wear a mask indoors at all times in public, including school settings. Newton County is in the high level category, along with much of south Georgia. 

You can find your COVID-19 community level here. 

What about the city and metro Atlanta?  

While masks are still required in public in-person meetings like the Atlanta City Council, they’re no longer mandatory in restaurants and grocery stores. Atlanta Public Schools also lifted its mandate.

A majority of metro Atlanta is considered to be in the “low” community zone. However, if you’re in a medium-level county – Cobb, Cherokee, or Douglas – and you are living with conditions that put you at risk for severe illness, precautions should be taken. Chat with your health care provider to make sure you’re protected. 

Cobb County also lifted its mask mandate inside of government buildings shortly after the CDC’s announcement. Gwinnett County allowed its mask mandate to expire in late February. In Fulton County, masks are still required in government buildings. The city of Decatur just agreed to let its mask mandate expire.

As for metro schools, you can expect more loosening of mandatory mask mandates. The CDC now recommends wearing masks in school settings for high-level communities. Gwinnett County Schools dropped its mask mandate shortly after the CDC’s recommendations changed. DeKalb County Schools also lifted its mask restrictions. Clayton County schools, located in the county with the highest concentration of Black people in the state, has yet to make a decision on its mask mandate.