Rhode Islanders who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer be required to wear masks or socially distance indoors or outdoors starting on Tuesday, May 18.

Gov. Daniel J. McKee and state health officials announced the changes on Friday to align Rhode Island with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Rhode Island will still require people to wear masks and socially distance -- regardless of vaccination status -- in schools, doctors’ offices, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, places that serve the homeless, and on public transportation.

Businesses and local officials also may continue to require masking for both employees and customers, whether or not they have been vaccinated. 

People who have been vaccinated also may “want to err on the side of caution” and wear masks when around other people, according to a statement released Friday. Anyone who has a condition or takes medications that can weaken the immune system, they said, should talk to a health care provider about whether to continue wearing a mask.

“As a general rule of thumb, if you are indoors with people who you are unsure whether they are vaccinated or not, you should strongly consider wearing a mask,’’ Dr. Philip A. Chan, an epidemiologist and state medical director said Friday. 

People who who have been vaccinated, Chan said, could contract the virus and not know it because they are asymptomatic. “I’m still concerned there may be a point in time where I may unknowingly have COVID and spread it to others,’’ he said, “even though I’m vaccinated.”

(People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and one week after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccination. )

The move by the CDC took state health officials by surprise, leaving them scrambling to revise their own guidance and timetables for fully reopening businesses. 

Rhode Island also will lift coronavirus restrictions on businesses on Friday, May 21, a week earlier than previously planned. Businesses will be allowed to reopen at 100% capacity and limits on social gatherings will be dropped. However, individual businesses can still opt to require masks.

About 56% of adults in Rhode Island were fully vaccinated as of Friday, about nearly 67% have had at least one dose of vaccine. 

“I am proud that we have made enough progress vaccinating Rhode Islanders that we can safely move forward with aligning with CDC mask wearing and social distancing updates,” McKee said in a statement. “More than anything, I see this shift as a strong call to get vaccinated.”

Thomas McCarthy, executive director of COVID Response for Rhode Island, said the state delayed lifting of the business restrictions for another week, to give time for employers to consider the new guidelines and speak with their colleagues and patrons. 

The CDC guidance “does allow for states and businesses (and) other organizations to set their own policies,’’ McCarthy said. “So that's a big part of what we'll be doing over the next few days.”

The announcement from the CDC came as federal officials have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — people who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot. The country's aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.

“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC.

“The science on this is pretty clear,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, Tweeted on Thursday. “Vaccinated people rarely get sick and don't do much transmitting.”

However, Jha also said, “Since we don’t know who is vaccinated and who isn’t, reasonable to keep indoor mask mandates for a few weeks…”

To date about 154 million Americans, more than 46% of the population, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines and more than 117 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.

Just two weeks ago, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds.

-- with reports by the Associated Press