The White House told federal agencies late on Monday they can drop COVID-19 requirements that employees and visitors wear masks in federal buildings in much of the country, according to a document seen by Reuters.
The White House-led Safer Federal Workforce Task Force said in new guidance that the mask requirement could be ended by federal facilities in counties with low or medium COVID-19 community levels, regardless of vaccination status. About 70% of U.S. counties covering 72% of the U.S. population are listed as having low or medium levels.
The White House directed agencies to revise federal employee masking and testing rules no later than March 4, according to the previously unreported document. The new guidance covers about 3.5 million employees at federal agencies.
In counties with low community levels, federal agencies also do not need to regularly screen unvaccinated employees for COVID-19, the guidance says.
The District of Columbia, which is home to the headquarters of most federal agencies, as well as nearby suburbs of Virginia and Maryland, which are home to the Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency and many federal public health and other agencies, are all listed as having low COVID-19 community levels.
When “a locality imposes more protective pandemic-related safety requirements, those requirements should be followed in federal facilities within that locality,” the guidance added.
Earlier on Monday, the White House said effective Tuesday it is lifting the requirement that fully vaccinated individuals wear masks on the White House campus, but it added that testing, providing vaccination information, and other COVID-19 protocols remain in place.
The new guidance says agencies should review U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) community levels weekly to determine any changes that need to be made to workplace safety protocols.
The move comes after the CDC on Friday dramatically eased its COVID-19 guidelines for masks, including in schools, a move that means almost 72% of the population reside in communities where indoor face coverings are no longer recommended.
The new masking guidelines shift from a focus on the rate of COVID-19 transmission to monitoring local hospitalizations, hospital capacity and infection rates.
Under the prior guidelines, 95% of U.S. counties were considered to be experiencing high transmission, leaving just 5% of U.S. counties meeting the agency’s criteria for dropping indoor mask requirements.
The White House faced a setback when a U.S. judge in Texas ruled in January that President Joe Biden could not require federal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and blocked the U.S. government from disciplining employees who failed to comply. The government has appealed the ruling.
In September, Biden issued an order requiring about 3.5 million workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22 barring a religious or medical accommodation – or else face discipline or firing.