Do You Need To Wear A Coronavirus Face Mask Outside?

The CDC says you should cover your face in public places like the grocery store. Experts explain how that guidance applies to outdoor areas, too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on face masks earlier this month, recommending that everyone now wear one in public.

In light of new information about the prevalence of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission of the coronavirus, the agency’s website says the “CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” (The CDC also asked people to avoid using surgical masks and N95 respirators, as those items are in short supply and should be saved for health care workers.)

The new language left many Americans wondering what exactly “public settings” means and whether they need to wear a mask whenever they’re outdoors. Here’s what experts have to say.

If you’re going outside, you should wear a mask — or at least bring one with you.

First, wearing a mask is more about protecting others from your respiratory droplets than it is about protecting yourself.

“Basic face masks can prove to be helpful if worn and used properly,” said Erin M. Sorrell, an assistant research professor in Georgetown University’s department of microbiology and immunology. “They trap coughs and sneezes that the wearer releases and can provide a barrier to exposing others.”

The risk of transmission may be greater in enclosed indoor spaces, but the virus can spread outdoors too — particularly in crowded areas where it may be difficult to maintain that 6-foot social distance the entire time.

“If you are walking around outside in an urban area or an area that is more densely populated and has higher foot traffic, I would recommend wearing a face mask outdoors,” Sorrell said.

However, if you’re walking in a more isolated area with no other people in proximity, you don’t need to wear a mask. But you should consider taking one with you in case you encounter passersby during your stroll, said Dr. Sachin Nagrani, a family physician in Virginia and medical director for Heal.

Carry the mask in a clean paper bag, rather than putting it directly into your pocket or purse.

More strenuous outdoor activities like running or cycling (which should only be done alone or with a member of your household) may pose additional challenges. During high-intensity workouts, a mask can get damp quickly, making it harder to breathe. And if it’s uncomfortable, you’re more likely to fiddle with it, which could lead to contamination if your hands aren’t clean. Also, a wet mask is less effective than a dry one.

For those reasons, your best bet may be to jog or bike only in areas where you know you can consistently maintain a healthy distance from others, so you don’t need to wear a facial covering.

“It is not necessary to wear a mask outdoors if you’re in an area where there are no people within sight,” Nagrani said.

But again, if you’re in a city or other more populated area where you’re more likely to cross paths with other folks, you should wear a facial covering, or at least bring one in case you need it.

For more intense workouts, some experts have recommended wearing a buff — a microfiber, bandana-like accessory — that can be stretched over the nose and mouth area, but is more breathable than other options. However, due to its looser nature, it may not be as effective.

When exercising with a facial covering, “start with lighter exertion to make sure it’s comfortable to breathe through the mask,“ Nagrani said. “Stop if it’s uncomfortable to catch your breath.”

Know that even medical-grade masks are not 100% effective in stopping the spread of the virus; homemade facial coverings are even less effective. Wearing a mask should always be done in addition to — not in place of — social distancing.

Here are some more safety tips for exercising outdoors.

Experts advise wearing a facial covering if you're exercising outdoors potentially near other people.
rudi_suardi via Getty Images
Experts advise wearing a facial covering if you're exercising outdoors potentially near other people.

Avoid crowded outdoor areas.

“Consider and respect personal space and don’t congest common walkways or paths,” Sorrell said. “If need be, step out of the way to let someone else pass, keeping your distance.”

Practice good hand hygiene.

It may be difficult to properly wash your hands with soap and warm water when you’re outside, so Sorrell recommends keeping hand sanitizer (one that’s at least 60% alcohol) in your car, bike or bag for when you’re on the go.

“You should sanitize your hands — be sure to cover both your hands and fingers and let the sanitizer dry — before getting into your car or riding your bike home,” Sorrell said. “And wash your hands once you have returned home.”

Make sure to follow proper mask protocols.

Wear a mask so that it fully covers the area from the bridge of your nose to below your chin and fits snugly against your face without gaps.

Wash your hands before you put the mask on, before removing it and after taking it off.

“Avoid touching the front or interior of the mask, which could be potentially contaminated,” Sorrell said. “And touch only the ear loops or ties to remove the mask from your face.”

Disposable masks should be discarded after use, while homemade cloth masks should be washed at least once a day.

Protect your eyes with glasses.

“Eyes are a potential surface to catch the virus,” Nagrani said. “Wearing an eye shield or glasses can also help protect you.”

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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