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Should I wear a mask outside? Experts weigh in on scenarios.


As more Americans are vaccinated against the coronavirus and a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the risk of outdoor transmission is low, many people are wondering: Do we need to keep wearing face masks outside?

The short answer is that masking outdoors can be "optional," says Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. While he says people should still generally don masks indoors, Sax believes statewide mandates for wearing masks outdoors may no longer be necessary. "The science of the viral transmission is advanced enough that we really don't want to be kind of confusing people by forcing them to wear masks in places where really they're at minimal risk," he says.

But before you start spending all your time outdoors barefaced, Sax and other experts emphasize that decisions about when to wear a mask outside largely depend on personal risk assessments involving a variety of virus-related factors. What is your vaccination status? How many other people could you be interacting with? Do you know their vaccination status? How much prolonged close contact could you have with them? Are you, or is anyone in your household, at increased risk for becoming severely ill from covid-19?

"There is not necessarily a straightforward rule," says Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. "A lot of it really comes down to still thinking of the level of risk of the situation around you and the people around you, especially."

Here's how experts say you should assess risk and what they recommend about masking in various outdoor scenarios.

Q: How can I judge whether it's safe for me to take my mask off?

A: Although situations vary, there are guiding principles that can help you answer this question.

If you can't maintain distance and there are a lot of people around who might not be vaccinated or might not be comfortable if others are unmasked, "then I think those are good cues to be wearing a mask," Pollitt says. You also should be mindful of the public health guidance on masking in your area.

Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech who studies airborne virus transmission, suggests keeping three factors in mind: whether you're outdoors, whether you're at a safe distance from other people and whether everyone is wearing masks. Ideally, Marr says, you should try to be in situations where you can meet two out of three of those conditions, particularly if you or people you're interacting with outside your household aren't vaccinated.

But if you're by yourself or only coming into close contact with members of your household and everyone is considered low risk, being outdoors without a mask is probably fairly safe, experts say.

"When you're walking your dog, you're going for a run or you're on a bicycle, these are really not risky situations for either you or the people who you might transiently pass," Sax says. Studies on ventilation, he adds, have shown that air flow outside is far better than it is indoors, "even with just a gentle breeze."

That means if you're hiking unmasked and you briefly encounter strangers on the trail, experts say there is probably no need to throw on a mask unless you're doing so to be polite. "We know that these aerosols are going to disperse very quickly outdoors," Pollitt says, "and the risk of infection, even without vaccination, would be much lower."

The risk decreases even more if you and the people around you outdoors are fully vaccinated, Marr says - "not zero risk, but getting there."

Of course, if you want to wear a mask outdoors in lower-risk situations, go ahead. "There are going to be people who, for a while, feel uncomfortable being outside without a mask," Sax says. "Any changes we make with relation to this pandemic are going to take some adjustment."

Q: When can I take off my mask while socializing?

A: Masks aren't necessary for outdoor socializing unless you're in a crowded area where unvaccinated people from different households are close to one another for prolonged periods of time, experts say.

If you're going to be having a face-to-face conversation and don't know whether the other people are fully vaccinated, keep your mask on, Sax says. "Face-to-face conversation is one of the things we know is risky for covid transmission."

But if you're vaccinated and talking outdoors with people from a single household, it may be OK to take your mask off, Marr says, as long as the other people are comfortable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that it is low risk for a vaccinated person to spend time indoors and unmasked with unvaccinated people from a single household who aren't vulnerable to severe cases of covid.

"If it's OK do it indoors, then it's certainly OK to do it outdoors," Marr says.

Q: If I'm eating outdoors, when should I put on mask?

A: Eating outdoors is generally safe, especially if you're vaccinated, Marr says, noting that she would not recommend that unvaccinated people from different households gather for a meal.

Regardless of your vaccination status, try to avoid dining setups where tables are close together or you're eating with others inside a structure. "You could be under a roof, but there should not be any walls," Marr says.

While brief unmasked interactions with servers are likely low risk, experts say you should still put your mask on when they approach your table to be considerate. Similarly, consider putting on your mask if you're engaging with someone at a drive-through window, even though the risk of transmission is low.

"As a matter of courtesy, we should continue to wear masks when we have encounters with servers because servers have been front-line workers from the start," Sax says. "I think that it's something that we should just do to respect them."

Q: Do I have to wear my mask while walking or running?

A: While masks aren't needed for a solo walk or run, if you're vaccinated and planning to go with someone outside your household or with a group of people who might not be vaccinated, that may increase risk.

"The larger the group, theoretically, no matter what the activity is, the greater the likelihood that someone could have covid in that group," Sax says.

And, Pollitt notes, you're going to be breathing more heavily if you're running, which means you might inhale greater amounts of air expelled by someone else. If you don't feel comfortable running in a mask, try to keep your distance from other people in the group, she says.

People who want to walk or run with a partner can forgo masks if everyone involved is comfortable with the level of risk, Pollitt says. In this situation, Marr suggests running side-by-side with a bit of distance between you and the other person.

"If one person's following behind the other, then the person behind could be breathing a lot of the front person's exhaled breath," Marr says. "That's the situation you want to avoid."

Q: Do I have to wear my mask playing outdoor sports?

A: The decision to wear a mask while playing sports outside will depend on the amount of contact you'll have with other players.

"If you are able to maintain extended distance, the mask, especially for vaccinated individuals, is less important," Pollitt says.

You probably don't need to wear a mask during noncontact sports such as tennis or golf, but a pickup basketball game is a different situation, experts say. During a basketball game, "people can get really close to each other and you're breathing hard," Marr says. So unless everyone is vaccinated, masks should be worn.

Q: Should I wear my mask at an outdoor game or concert?

A: Large crowds are risky, even outdoors, Sax says.

If you're watching a game or attending a concert, you'll likely be around many other people for an extended period of time and should wear a mask. Keep in mind that people at games and concerts are typically yelling or cheering loudly, Marr says, actions that may forcefully expel larger amounts of potentially infectious particles into the air.

Guests at outdoor weddings also should consider staying masked unless they can be seated at a safe distance, Marr says.

Q: How long will we have to wear masks?

A: As the pandemic continues to evolve, experts emphasize that recommendations for masking will change. In the meantime, it's important to understand that being outdoors and without your mask can be safe, Sax says.

"We're never going to get to a place where there's zero risk," Sax says. "But I think that if we focus on the situations that are riskiest and pull back a little on the safer settings, that would actually give people more trust in public health messages."

Published : April 23, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Allyson Chiu