This editorial was written by the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

The federal government’s decision last week to relax its guidance on masks marked a turning point in America’s fight against COVID-19. While the reversal created confusion, and concern among some experts and skeptics, the move was appropriate given the encouraging trends, the effectiveness the vaccines have shown and the precautions Americans are voluntarily taking to limit the spread of infections. The nation, though, still has a way to go, and Florida has a particular interest in promoting caution and vigilance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that fully vaccinated people could start taking off their masks indoors. Coming as the number of new infections has plummeted as the supply of vaccine outstrips demand, the new recommendations were welcomed by many, who say the easing aptly reflects the risk level at this stage of the evolving pandemic. The guidance has exceptions: Fully vaccinated people are still encouraged to wear face coverings on planes, buses and trains and in some congregate settings, such as hospitals and jails. Though the advisory does not override mask orders by states and local governments, jurisdictions across the country scrambled last week to bring their own rules into compliance with the federal advisory.

Critics accused the CDC of caving to political pressure in making the policy change. But with cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. trending down for weeks, and with vaccines becoming more available for larger segments of the population, the agency was right to ease off. After more than a year of masking up, Americans needed to see the guidance calibrated to the times. The new recommendations provide a psychological boost. They also underscore the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, including the protection they offer against most variants. About 47 percent of the U.S. population, and 45 percent in Florida, have received at least one dose of the vaccine. As of Monday, 37 percent of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated, compared to almost 32 percent in Florida. If the new guidance helps move more people to get the jab so they can enjoy more freedom, so much the better.

As the nation’s third largest state, heavily reliant on tourism, Florida has a particular stake in improving the nation’s COVID picture. New cases in Florida continue to drop, deaths remain low and after holding steady for months, case counts in Tampa Bay area schools are dropping precipitously. These are encouraging trends as the summer travel season looms. Last week, following the CDC announcement, several major Florida theme parks loosened their mask requirements, including Busch Gardens Tampa, Disney World and Universal Orlando. State and local public health authorities will need to monitor infections and address any outbreaks as these attractions and the economy further open up.

Last week’s announcement that younger teens could get Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was another boost in the inoculation effort, just as children make plans for summer camp and prepare for a more normal return to school later this year. The availability of vaccines for entire families might also encourage more holdout parents to get their shots, too. Many businesses are doing their part by requiring vaccinations before allowing employees back into the workplace.

The relaxed federal guidance, though, marks a new stage for personal responsibility. As was evident across the Tampa Bay area this weekend, many shops are asking customers to continue wearing masks, given the risks still posed to younger children, those with compromised immune systems and others unable or unwilling to get a vaccine. There is no easier contribution to make than for Floridians eligible for vaccines to get them. They are safe, highly effective, widely available and free. And they are central to the nation’s recovery.

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