Federal Employees No Longer Required to Wear Masks in Much of the Country

The Biden administration has relaxed mask requirements for federal employees in accordance with new CDC guidelines.

New guidance from the Biden administration tells federal agencies that they no longer have to require federal employees to wear masks in areas where COVID-19 transmission rates are lower.

The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force released the new guidance on Monday in response to new guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week which change the way the agency recommends when Americans should wear masks.

According to the new CDC guidelines, masks are now no longer recommended for all individuals indoors in counties where COVID transmission rates are low or medium. This amounts to about 70% of the counties in the country. This also includes the District of Columbia county in Washington, DC which is listed as “low” on the CDC website as of the time of this writing.

“…Federal agencies follow CDC guidelines for mask-wearing and other public health measures,” states the Task Force guidance. “For Federal facilities in the United States, agencies should utilize that [CDC] data in determining the COVID-19 Community Level for a given facility by looking to the COVID-19 Community Level for the county in which the facility is located. Where a locality imposes more protective pandemic-related safety requirements, those requirements should be followed in Federal facilities within that locality.”

As such, the new Task Force guidance provides the following recommendations to federal agencies:

Federal Agency Masking and Screening Testing Protocols Based on COVID-19 Community Levels

Level is LOW in the county where a Federal facility is located

  • Mask-Wearing: Agencies do not need to require individuals to wear masks in that Federal facility, regardless of vaccination status.
  • Screening Testing: Agencies do not need to utilize their screening testing program in that Federal facility.

When the COVID-19 Community Level is MEDIUM in the county where a Federal facility is located

  • Mask-Wearing: Agencies do not need to require individuals to wear masks in that Federal facility, regardless of vaccination status.
  • Screening Testing: Agencies should utilize their screening testing programs in that Federal facility, consistent with the protocols the agency has established for screening testing that align with guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.

When the COVID-19 Community Level is HIGH in the county where a Federal facility is located

  • Mask-Wearing: Agencies should require individuals to wear masks in that Federal facility, regardless of vaccination status and consistent with CDC and Task Force guidance on mask-wearing.
  • Screening Testing: Agencies should utilize their screening testing program in that Federal facility, consistent with the protocols the agency has established for screening testing that align with guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.

All of the above recommendations are based on the new CDC county level COVID transmission data.

The Task Force further notes that federal agencies are instructed to review the COVID-19 Community Level for each of their facilities on a weekly basis to determine any changes that need to be made to agency COVID-19 workplace safety protocols for the upcoming week.

COVID Testing Requirements

The Task Force also updated its testing guidelines for unvaccinated federal employees in response to the new CDC guidelines.

The Task Force now tells agencies that unvaccinated federal employees will only be subject to mandatory routine COVID testing in areas where COVID-19 transmission levels are medium or high. Weekly testing is still recommended.

Federal employees who are working remotely or teleworking do not need to undergo regular testing even if they are not vaccinated. Only federal employees who work onsite or interact in person with members of the public as part of their job duties on an infrequent basis will be subject to the mandatory COVID tests.

Q: What testing protocols should be applied through an agency’s screening testing program to employees who are not fully vaccinated?

A: When COVID-19 Community Levels are MEDIUM or HIGH (see FAQs on Local Conditions), employees who are not fully vaccinated and who work onsite should undergo regular screening testing through their agency’s screening testing program. This includes employees who do not work at a Federal facility but who interact in person with members of the public as part of their job duties, such as safety inspectors.

For purposes of regularly testing these employees through a screening testing program, an employee enrolled in the program should be tested weekly for any week during which they work onsite or interact in person with members of the public as part of their job duties. Agencies may require more frequent testing, such as for certain roles, functions, or work environments. Testing may be conducted at a Federal facility or offsite as determined by the agency. The test should not be both self-administered and self-read by the employee unless observed by the agency or an authorized telehealth provider.

Q: Do the screening testing protocols apply to Federal employees who are not fully vaccinated and who only work onsite on an infrequent basis?

A: Federal employees who are not fully vaccinated and who work onsite or interact in person with members of the public as part of their job duties on an infrequent basis should be tested at least once in the week that they are working onsite or interact in person with members of the public as part of their job duties. An agency may determine that some employees who generally do not report to a worksite or interact with members of the public as part of their job duties, but may need to do so on an emergency basis (e.g., for accident investigations or disaster response) are required to undergo regular testing when COVID-19 Community Levelsare MEDIUM or HIGH (see FAQs on Local Conditions), on a frequency determined by the agency.

Should these Federal employees need to be onsite at another agency’s facility when COVID-19 Community Levels are MEDIUM or HIGH (see FAQs on Local Conditions), they generally would be treated as visitors during their visit, and so would need to be able to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result administered within the past 3 days.

Status of the Federal Employee Vaccine Mandate

The federal government is currently not enforcing President Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal employees due to a court injunction that blocked its enforcement.

However, the federal government is still subjecting unvaccinated federal employees to the additional safety measures outlined above, namely the required weekly testing when working onsite at agency offices.

The Biden administration was appealing the ruling on the vaccine mandate and the final outcome has yet to be determined. It could end up before the Supreme Court before it is fully settled.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.