Wearing masks has been a part of life for a year, but there’s a growing debate over whether they’re actually needed outdoors. Some argue that the constantly circulating air currents outdoors make mask-wearing outside unnecessary for preventing the spread of COVID-19 when you’re not in crowds, while others say there’s still a risk whenever you’re in the same vicinity as others.
Some countries and states are already loosening regulations on outdoor masking, fueling the debate. On Sunday, Israel dropped its outdoor mask requirement after COVID-19 cases went down significantly. Some 81 percent of eligible adults in the country are fully vaccinated. A growing number of states in the U.S. are also lifting mask mandates, leaving people in places like Colorado, Montana and Texas free to make their own decisions about masking up in public areas.
That raises a question: If given the choice, what should you be doing when it comes to mask etiquette outdoors?
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks in public settings, at events and gatherings and “anywhere they will be around other people.” Masks are also required outdoors (and indoors) in 26 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
But infectious disease doctors say that local regulations aside, you don’t necessarily need to wear a mask in every situation when you’re outdoors. “Outdoor masking in most ordinary circumstances is not going to provide extraordinary value,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “If you’re in a crowd where people can’t social distance, masks make sense. But in ordinary outdoor environments, there’s not much value to it.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that it’s important to be “sensible” about outdoor masking. “If you’re outside walking separate from other people and either by yourself or with someone with whom you live, then you can take off your mask,” he says. “But if you’re walking outside in the city when you’re passing others all the time, it’s a good idea to wear a mask.”
Doctors stress that it boils down to a risk-benefit analysis. “The risk of getting COVID-19 is lower outside, but it’s not zero,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “If there isn’t anyone else around, it is probably OK to go maskless.” But, he adds, “I would still be careful around other people, especially crowds.”
Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life that outdoor masking is “complicated.”
“Certainly, the uptake of vaccination leads us in a direction over time that could lead to not wearing masks,” he says. “But we are nowhere near that point.” If you’re gathering with people you know who are fully vaccinated, and you’re fully vaccinated, Halkitis says you should be fine to be more lax with masks. “But that requires a really clear understanding of who the people are [that] you’re around,” he says, which can include their vaccination status and even their underlying health issues.
Halkitis is fully vaccinated and says he wears a mask “anytime I walk down the street, whether I interact with people or not.” Why? “There is no 100 percent guarantee with vaccination,” he says. “There’s an even smaller guarantee that the vaccines work with evolving variants in our society. I do not find it constricting or restricting — I find it responsible.”
Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that it’s important for people to remember that the vaccines aren’t perfect. “I love masks,” he says. “We know that the risk of getting infected outdoors is significantly less, but it’s not zero. Masks help with that.”
Russo says that continuing to wear masks in public is just polite right now. “If you’re fully vaccinated, you could say that you’re not worried about yourself, but there is the concept of mask etiquette where people don’t know that you’re vaccinated,” he says. “There is still a significant portion of people who aren’t vaccinated. It’s just appropriate etiquette to wear a mask.”
It may take a while for the CDC and other organizations to change their recommendations on masking up outdoors, Adalja says. “Public health authorities tend to be much more comfortable with blanket orders,” he says.
But Russo says we will likely get to a point where masks are recommended in some situations, but not necessarily others. He anticipates masks being recommended for events like outdoor concerts and sports for a while, but perhaps not when you’re walking down the street. “We’re going to get to a point where we relax our public health measures — more people will be vaccinated and case counts will go down,” he says. “Outdoors will likely be the first place where masks are going to go. Indoors is the last place where we’ll be able to get rid of masks.”
Schaffner anticipates that outdoor mask recommendations may lift by the end of the summer, particularly for those who are vaccinated. “If we can get up to 80 percent of people vaccinated by that time, then we can start putting our masks aside,” he says. “Until then, during this period of transition where the virus and vaccines are still in a race, we ought to be cautious.”
Schaffner urges people to keep this in mind: “Masks are so inexpensive, so effective, and so easy to use —please don’t get hung up on this. Wear masks.”