As COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions ease and more businesses, bars and restaurants open, health experts and state officials are also seeing more confusion, disdain and even hostility toward wearing masks.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom reacted on June 18 by issuing an order requiring Californians to wear face coverings in “high-risk” settings that include any indoor public space, lines to enter those spaces and any setting where 6-foot social distancing is not feasible.
UC Davis experts have been warning about the need for masks and have advice for the nuances about wearing them, how to care for them, and what not to wear. But their advice about masks starts with one simple point: Wear them. Protect your community.
“The tradeoff for going out into the world again is wearing a cloth face mask,” said Natascha Tuznik, a UC Davis Health assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases. “That’s all you need to do.”
She said many people misunderstand the reason for wearing masks – they are mostly to protect others from the wearer possibly spreading the virus.
“It’s a courtesy. It’s an act of kindness,” Tuznik said. “You’re doing it to protect your neighbors and the people in your community. And you are trusting they will protect you. Do you want to be the reason someone you love is in intensive care?”
Allison Brashear, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, shared her concern with an online international audience in early June. She said because of eased stay-at-home restrictions, many people are behaving as if COVID-19 is no longer a threat and that they no longer need to be careful.
“I have been very concerned as I see things reopening,” Brashear said during a UC Davis virtual symposium on COVID-19. “I see lots of people not social distancing and not wearing masks. Some people have taken it almost like a free pass. We have to be wary about feeling like we have a free pass.”
Brashear said the desire to see family and friends and to go back to a pre-COVID-19 lifestyle is natural, and it’s something we all have to wrestle with.
“It’s understandable that people want to get out,” she said. “The country has been locked down for several months and we are increasingly aware of how isolated everybody is feeling. Human contact is important. Seeing family is important.
“But we have to balance that with doing the prudent things: Wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands,” she said.
When to wear a mask? Always indoors in public.
To be clear, not every moment spent in public requires a mask. But when people are indoors and sharing spaces, masks are now required, and they are absolutely needed, Tuznik said.
“Any time you’re close to people, it’s best to wear one,” said Tuznik. “Any time you’re breathing hard, talking loudly or laughing a lot, they’re important. That’s when we can expel more of the virus and send it a lot farther.”
Masks are particularly important in a number of public places, including malls, personal service establishments such as salons and barber shops, public transit, gyms, bars and restaurants. All of these places in California now require masks per the governor’s order.
“I realize it’s hard to wear a mask between sips or bites of food,” she said, “but at a minimum, wear one into the establishment as a courtesy.”
Masks are also required now in shops and supermarkets and even picking up takeout food.
“Even if you’re inside for just a minute or two, you’re still protecting other customers and the workers,” she said. “You're helping them feel safe. And since your time in there is brief, that’s even easier.”
Other places where masks are now required includes businesses where workers interact with the public or they prepare, store or ship food. Mask are also now necessary in common areas like hallways, stairways, elevators and parking lots.
When are masks not required? Not so much outdoors.
Masks are not required for anyone exercising outside – including walkers, runners, and cyclists – if they keep a 6-foot distance. Tuznik said if you pass someone on the bike trail, there is not much to worry about.
“The airflow outside helps disperse any virus in the air, which is why social distancing is so effective,” Tuznik said. “Or if you’re careful to distance in a park, at a beach or even at a public pool, they aren’t necessary.”
“But if you go to the snack bar or the restroom, put it on,” she said.
Small outside gatherings with people physically distanced don’t require masks, either.
Masks are also are not required for children under age 2, people who are hearing impaired and those communicating with them, workers whose health may be put at risk, or people who may need to temporarily remove a mask to perform a task.
Masks in your car? It depends.
If you’re running errands in and out of stores, use hand sanitizer when you enter and, especially, leave every store, then you can take your mask off in the car.
“But if you aren’t sanitizing your hands, leave it on,” she said. “I know it can get uncomfortable, especially in summer, but you don’t want to touch your face.”
Can you reuse masks?
Cloth masks just need a washing in hot water after a couple uses, or if they are visibly soiled.
Surgical masks or thick paper masks have a few uses in them. They can be worn until they’re visibly soiled or get damp, but then they need to be thrown out.
“You can’t reliably disinfect them at home,” Tuznik said.
Warning: Don’t wear the masks with filter ports.
“Those should be banned,” Tuznik said. “Unfortunately, I see them advertised in too many places. They’re designed for people working around caustic fumes or chemicals and they force out the air you’re breathing through the port.”
Instead of protecting someone from you, they propel your breath even farther and more forcefully.
“When I see someone wearing those masks, I walk the other way,” she said.
One last caution
“I don’t know how we tell people anything we haven’t already told them,” Tuznik said. “We want people to be aware that COVID-19 could be coming for them or someone they love.
“There are no guarantees,” she said. “The virus is not gone. Healthy people in their 20s and 30s have gotten sick. If you wear a mask, you might be saving someone’s life. You might be saving someone you love.”