Masking Outdoors

Science, politics, and social norms intersect in some really strange ways.

Slate’s Shannon Palus declares, “It’s About Time for Us to Stop Wearing Masks Outside.” Her argument is familiar.

For a while now, this has felt a little unnecessary, if understandable, given that we were still learning things about the virus and were trying to be as careful as possible. But now, as we’ve come to know more about the virus, as vaccinations are ramping up, and as we’re trying to figure out how to live with some level of COVID in a sustainable way, masking up outside when you’re at most briefly crossing paths with people is starting to feel barely understandable. Look: I believe masks (and even shaming) are indispensable in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Despite early waffling, public health experts are virtually unanimously in support of them and have remained so even as our early dedication to scrubbing surfaces and Cloroxing veggies wound down.

[…]

When it comes to coronavirus spread, evidence shows that being outdoors is very, very safe. A paper published in Indoor Airlooked at 1,245 cases in China and found just one instance of outdoor transmission, which involved people having a conversation, which means they had to be close to one another for some period of time and face to face. According to data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, shared earlier this month with the Irish Times, of 232,164 cases in Ireland, just 262 were associated with “locations which are primarily associated with outdoor activities.” That is, about 0.1 percent. A meta-analysis published online in November in the Journal of Infectious Diseases suggests it’s possible the upper bound of cases potentially contracted outdoors is higher; it estimates that the total is less than 10 percent. When I called Nooshin Razani, an author on that report and an associate professor of  epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, she emphasized that the real number of instances of outdoor transmission was “probably lower” than 10 percent, since the cases she and her team counted were sometimes murky: cases that occurred at construction sites, or summer camps where people were sharing bunks. That is, these scenarios likely involved some indoor time as well. They also tended to involve people who were spending time together over a period of days. “Most of the cases that happened outdoors had something about the circumstances you could point to and say, ‘That was a risk,’ ” says Razani. Just one case involved joggers—who were jogging together. Still, Razani said she couldn’t comment on whether it was OK to go maskless on a sidewalk where you’re able to mostly, but not perfectly, stay distanced from others. In an article in National Geographic by science writer Tara Haelle, other experts note that yes, we have data that the outdoors is very safe, and yet, if you can’t distance, even briefly, you might want to pull up your mask, partly out of respect, and also just to be safe.

Like Palus, I’ve long thought it’s silly to wear masks outdoors unless you’re in a crowd. (In downtown Manhattan or even DC, it absolutely makes sense much of the time given population density. In the suburbs, not so much.) It’s been obvious for more than a year now that it was more performative than medically useful.

Unlike Palus, though, I tend to agree with Haelle that, if folks in your community are mostly masking outdoors, it’s good manners to follow suit. For whatever reason, most people in my neck of the woods wear masks from their cars to the grocery store. So, if others are around, I put mine on, too. It’s exceedingly silly—especially now that I’m “fully vaccinated” and pose even less risk. But, of course, they have no way of knowing that.

And, really, this is just another unhelpful way in which the whole issue has been politicized:

So why is it still officially considered best practice to do what Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor at UCSF, says “almost becomes ridiculous” as vaccinations increase? Whether we wear masks at all times outside has become a combination of politics and regional attitudes toward the virus—not science. Early on in the pandemic, wearing a mask became a symbol that you took the virus seriously and were willing to listen to public health officials; not wearing one was a symbol that you valued personal freedoms and, weirdly, the president of the United States. And maybe in the beginning of the pandemic, it made sense to mask up as much as possible—we were in an emergency, and it felt sort of appropriate to signal to one another that we all understood the seriousness of this virus. But masks shouldn’t go on being a blunt-force declaration of safety; we should embrace their nuanced use, starting with the idea that they might be overkill in some settings outdoors. This is especially true for people who have been fully vaccinated, and for whom wearing a mask in an already very-low risk setting is more of a show of participation in pandemic society than a medical necessity. “What I’m saying is really heterodoxy in San Francisco,” says Gandhi, who has authored multiple papers on just how important masks are. “Here, if you don’t wear a mask, everyone glares at you.” But she noted that on a recent trip to Austin, Texas, she saw lots of masks inside but not really outdoors. Such a world was possible. “I was so fascinated—I was like, you know what, this is consistent with biology.”

[…]

While I’m not superinterested in breaking my city’s social norms—especially while our cases are still high—our collective agreement to mask up obsessively outdoors comes at a cost. Masking can be exhausting. It makes recreation really annoying, especially as the weather warms. It makes it difficult to escape, even temporarily, from the pandemic. It deprives us of seeing one another’s smiles! I’m aware that these are also arguments deployed by those who decry all masking, even indoors. But the point is that masking shouldn’t be about signaling what side you’re on—it should be about using a tool in response to risk. Being overly vigilant about masks when they are not important makes it more difficult to keep wearing them when they are. Also, I fear that it is making us look a little ridiculous.

I agree with all of that. It’s especially annoying for me because I wear glasses (which double as sunglasses) and they tend to fog when I’m masked. But we live in the world as it is, not as it should be.

My prediction is that, as vaccination rates go up and disease rates go down, we’ll fairly quickly abandon this performance. People are already starting to ease back into indoor dining hereabouts. Pretty soon, the disconnect between that and outdoor masking will become apparent. Until then, dutifully going along with the superstition seems like the polite thing to do.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, COVID-19, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    For whatever reason, most people in my neck of the woods wear masks from their cars to the grocery store.

    You’re gonna have to put it on in a minute anyway, might as well put it on when you get out of the car.

    23
  2. CSK says:

    New Hampshire’s statewide mask mandate expired at midnight last night, although a lot of municipalities and businesses have retained theirs. Starting tomorrow, anyone living outside of the state can go there to receive a shot.

    Proportionately speaking, I think NH has vaccinated more of its residents than any other state.

    6
  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    I agree with all of that. It’s especially annoying for me because I wear glasses (which double as sunglasses) and they tend to fog when I’m masked. But we live in the world as it is, not as it should be.

    This! I’m tired of masks and I’m looking forward to when use falls by the wayside. But until then, I’ll grumble and wear one in crowded areas and indoors. But out walking the dog? Nah.

    6
  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    @CSK:

    Actually New Mexico tops NH. Which is pretty amazing when you consider that NM is one of the poorest states and majority, minority.

    4
  5. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Ah, thanks; I wasn’t aware of that. Yes, that is impressive. But NH is surely up there, correct?

    2
  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @CSK:

    On the podium, as runner up.

    My wife volunteered at a jab clinic yesterday for 16-18 yo, she told me they jabbed 1200 kids.

    1
  7. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Great. Congratulations.
    It’ll be interesting to see how many out-of-staters show up tomorrow.

  8. Tony W says:

    We have two homes and split our time between them.

    In our suburban community in the Pacific Northwest we hardly ever mask up outdoors. We walk down the street, cross to the opposite side when anybody is approaching, and mask only in parking lots, stores, and other places where we are likely to encounter other people.

    In our big-city condo, the world is different. We mask up just to go into the common-area hallway, and mostly mask-up walking through the busy streets and waterfront promenade.

    Over the past couple of months, we have begun to remove our masks for a few minutes when we are alone on the sidewalk for a few hundred feet, then replace it when we see people approaching – because that’s the polite thing to do.

    Same people – different behavior in different environments.

    I have noticed that more and more people in the big city are not bothering with their masks outdoors – even in crowds. Part of that could be that we are in a tourist/vacation community (San Diego) and many of the people we encounter are here on vacation and seem to be taking a “vacation” from mask-wearing as well.

    We will continue as we are today until the CDC advises differently.

    6
  9. steve says:

    New Hampshire is #1 in percentage of vaccines given out fo those available. In general red states are worst. Blue states better. In particular Florida is pretty bad. The right wing press has promoted Desantis as doing a great job but not true.

    https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/public-health/states-ranked-by-percentage-of-covid-19-vaccines-administered.html

    Steve

    1
  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    Mask compliance will follow death rates, not contagion rates. Fewer deaths = fewer masks. In California infections are up 5%. Deaths are down 29%. Overall 50% of the eligible 16+ population has had at least one shot, which is 80% immunity after 2 weeks. 40% of the population overall is at least half-jabbed.

    As we discussed on another thread, herd immunity in the sense of limiting the virus’s ability to mutate, is probably a fantasy unless it’s global herd immunity. And that ain’t happening. It just isn’t. So we’re down to working toward widespread rather than herd immunity, which will reduce the spread and is already drastically cutting death rates.

    Obviously this is terrible for people who for legitimate health reasons can’t get the shot. I am sorry for those people. But as to the population of refuseniks? Every now and then it seems the herd decides to thin itself.

    5
  11. CSK says:

    @steve:
    That’s probably what I was thinking of. Thanks.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    Several years ago I jogged with a mask for a winter on a doctors advice. I’ve worn masks for hours at a time while doing things that generate dust. I wear glasses. I use masks with a nose wire. I have anti fog spray on the shelf, haven’t needed to use it. I started masks before anyone required it because it made sense, not because anybody told me to. I don’t wear one outside with no one around because there’s no reason to load contaminants on a mask. I suppose I have different experience and expectations, but I just don’t see wearing a mask as much of a thing. You see me wearing a mask in the parking lot and ask why. I see people rip the mask off as soon as they’re out the door and ask why.

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  13. Argon says:

    Happy to wear masks outside. Really helps with my hay fever, which is quite bad this season.

    3
  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    The people least likely to be masked are also the people least likely to vaccinated. Part of the reason to keep masking after being vaccinated is not providing them with “tall grass” to hide in.

    5
  15. Teve says:

    @Argon: I’ve been freebasing claritin, sudafed, and ketotifen fumarate for 2 weeks now. Seems to be correlated to grass pollen.

  16. Kathy says:

    The worse that an happen if you wear a mask is nothing.

    I’ve never tried this, but I’ve heard that rubbing liquid soap on surfaces keeps them from getting fogged. I know NASA does this with EVA helmets.

    1
  17. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    I may be missing something here, but wouldn’t the liquid soap smear up a surface such as the eyeglass lens?

    3
  18. Gustopher says:

    If you are outside, talking to people at close range, for a prolonged period, you absolutely should be masked. How long is a prolonged period? How close is close range? What constitutes talking with someone?

    If you’re outside, within 6 feet of someone, mask up.

    Simple rules are easier to follow. We’ve all been frustrated with vaccination schedules that have Phase 1B, Tier 3 — people over 50 with two or more of the following list of state approved comorbidities.

    Mask up when you’re around people. Simple.

    6
  19. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    No idea. I’ve just read about it.

    I don’t suppose they mean the thick, gooey, opaque hand soap common in washrooms.

  20. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    I’ve never encountered one that wasn’t like that. Hand sanitizer maybe.

    If you can remember to Scotch tape the upper rims of the mask to your face, that can work.

  21. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy:

    The worse that an happen if you wear a mask is nothing.

    The worst that can happen is my glasses fog up, I trip, fall in front of a car, and am run over. I think hurting myself through steamed glasses and haplessness is far more likely than catching covid by walking past another unmasked person.

    (Also, the mask can trigger an anxiety attack, but that’s just annoying rather than dangerous)

    Anyway, that’s why I keep my mask to a minimum, and take my walks on side streets, and dart across the street to avoid people.

    I’ve never gotten the liquid soap thing to work, tried a few times, clearly doing it wrong. The KN94 masks provide a better seal at the top, though, so the steaming issue has gotten better.

  22. Kylopod says:

    I take a walk in Manhattan every Saturday, and while I do wear a mask (the vast majority of New Yorkers do, based on what I’ve seen), I often slip it down beneath my nose when I’m not near other people. It makes it easier to breathe comfortably and there’s also the fogging-glasses issue. I’m well aware the chances of transmission while outside are low, though I still think it’s good to have it fully on for when I stop to chat with someone (and especially for when I briefly go indoors).

    1
  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Well sure, but if you’re dog is one of those Biden-ey asshole-ish dogs who runs up to everyone bumping and sniffing and yelling at them, you have built in distancing thanks to your dog.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Argon: I’ve never gotten a tight enough seal wearing a mask for that except for the period where I wore an industrial mask with replaceable filters. Uncomfortable as all get out. I wonder what I did with it.

  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: Ketotifen didn’t work for me at all. Fluticasone worked so well that using it daily for about a month just when a season starts reverses the sinus inflammation well enough to switch over to occasional use as things progress. But I’ve been very lucky with seasonal allergies since I returned from Korea–where I had no measurable problems–probably from living in “concrete jungle” heavily urbanized settings.

    1
  26. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    A pug, the problem is keeping people at a distance.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Don’t know about using soap, but I do know that the steam from the shower doesn’t stick to the glass as much as it sticks to the stuff sticking to the glass. Same with the polycarbonate(?) lenses of my trifocals. My glasses mostly fog up because the lenses are dirty. I remember years ago someone advocating rubbing a wet bar of hand soap on a mirror to keep it from fogging. I assume that the slightly soapy wet from the bar cleans the mirror.

  28. Teve says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: ketotifen makes my eyes feel like a cool breeze for hours, though weirdly, for about 5 seconds as soon as the drops go in, my eyes burn like a Mother.

    1
  29. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kylopod:
    One of my favorite things is long walks in big cities. They’re target-rich environments, there’s always a show. Manhattan, Paris, London, Chicago, Florence. . . not LA so much. LA’s one of those places where the car basically preceded growth and aside maybe from Venice Beach or downtown Beverly Hills, not a lot of target-rich walks.

    1
  30. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve often seen advice to rub a raw potato on a lens to prevent fogging. Never tried it myself, and it sounds like it would streak. But perhaps worth a try.

  31. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Kathy:

    The worse that an happen if you wear a mask is nothing.

    Wrong.

    While I fully support wearing masks, saying that “nothing” is the only possible side effect is wrong. And it’s wrong to put forth that position–because once any side effect appears, the anti-maskers get to point at it and say that you’re wrong.

    I have a co-worker who developed a severe rash around her lower face from wearing a mask at work. I know several people who have had significant breathing issues because of masks (I’ve had issues, but they’re generally minor and I have an office where I can remove my mask when things get bad).

    Anecdotally, I’ve heard of panic attacks and asthma attacks brought on by mask wearing (presumably from the higher CO2 in the re-breathed air).

    While the rash and small breathing issues are minor, they are still something. You have to acknowledge them and then downplay them.

    Panic attacks and Asthma attacks can be debilitating. They’re serious. They need to be acknowledged, and addressed. If they aren’t, then every single one undermines the idea that “nothing bad can happen”. Once something bad does happen–and something will–you’ve lost the trust of the people you’re trying to convince.

    In an average year, 2,500 Americans die from falling off furniture. Another 2,500 die from “falling on a flat, non-elevated surface”. And 50 die from “hot tap water”.

    Nothing has zero risk.

    Admit that whatever you’re doing has a tiny risk, and point to that when the unlikely happens.

    2
  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: No weirdness necessary. The sclera of your eyeballs is inflamed when you first put in the eyedrops and the salt that carries the antihistamine creates a burning sensation to the inflamed tissue.

    In passing, I will also note that long-term/frequent use of eyedrops has been linked to glaucoma risk in some products. You might want to talk to your doctor if you use more than a bottle of this a year.

  33. Jen says:

    As noted above, NH’s statewide mask mandate ended on Friday at midnight, but the governor extended the emergency order. Trying to have it both ways–means he’s getting closer to running against Hassan for the Senate seat I guess.

    We don’t bother masking outside when walking the dog–as I’ve noted before, our little cul-de-sac is in a rural community and we just don’t really see other people that often (not even our neighbors really). It’s easy to distance.

    The handful of times we’ve had to be in more densely populated areas (it seems funny to refer to either Manchester or Portsmouth as “densely populated,” but comparatively speaking they are) we’ve kept our masks on.

    And, the times when I’ve had to go into the grocery store instead of curbside pickup, I do put my mask on in the car, mostly so I can confirm that my adjustments have improved the fit of the mask, rather than leaving gaping holes at the sides.

    I was incredibly annoyed to see the numbers of masks below noses, ill-fitting masks, etc. at our town deliberative session. One woman had one on that jutted out from her face by an inch–I could see her entire nose exposed from the side. I will be incredibly pissed off if I get sick from attending that nonsense meeting because people don’t understand how masks function.

  34. Stormy Dragon says:

    Regarding masks fogging glasses: I found that just making sure the top edge of the mask is tucked under the lower edge of the lenses prevented fogging for me and that I only get fogging problems if the mask slips out from underneath. This may simply be the glasses pressing down and making a better seal along the top edge of the mask, but there’s still a gap there, so I’m not sure if fogging is primarily a problem one the outside of the lens and not the inside? The air inside the lens may be closer to body temp already so that the exhaled air doesn’t condense like it does with the cooler air outside the lenses?

    2
  35. Mimai says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Your comment made me think of a quote from Carl Rogers, which is both simple and profound:

    “It’s an awful risky thing, to live.”

    1
  36. Teve says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Anecdotally, I’ve heard of panic attacks and asthma attacks brought on by mask wearing (presumably from the higher CO2 in the re-breathed air).

    Panic attacks could be a real issue for some people. But masks increase your CO2 levels a trivial amount and don’t change your O2 saturation more than negligibly if at all. Hemoglobin has an extreme avidity for O2.

    3
  37. Teve says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: thanks for the tip. I usually us KF eye drops maybe 10-15 times per year.

  38. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Here’s a suggestion: what other people do is none of your business. Stop judging everybody. I really don’t care what other people think of my and my wife’s masking habits. We look forward to the day – whenever it arrives – when we can remove them and go about our business with a naked face. But until then, keep your unwanted opinions to yourself.

    2
  39. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    what other people do is none of your business

    When they spray spittle on me, it is my business.
    And that my opinion and I will damn well say so outloud.

    2
  40. DrDaveT says:

    I wear glasses (which double as sunglasses) and they tend to fog when I’m masked.

    I was extremely happy to discover these things last year. It has made all the difference.

    1
  41. Jen says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: This is precisely the attitude that has us clocking in 566K deaths.

    When your actions affect others, it IS their business. Your right to swing your arms stops at my nose.

    I am absolutely judging others who fail to follow simple rules designed to protect others. If nothing else, they are demonstrating to me that they DNGAF about anyone else, and that’s a problem if we wish to have a functional society.

    1
  42. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Oh for God’s sake I am obviously referring to those morons who refuse to mask at all and am NOT criticizing those who do. I made it clear my wife and I are masking. James’ post strikes me as the kind of nitpicking irrelevance that seems unnecessary right now and to the extent it gives anti-maskers an inch that will lead them to take a mile it’s actually unhelpful.

    2
  43. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Agreed. Ketotifen is basically useless. Lastacaft (alcaftadine) works, but it ain’t cheap. That, fluticasone, and cetirizine are my holy armor during tree mating season.

  44. Grewgills says:

    @Kathy:
    That is standard snorkel/scuba mask defogging protocol. Smear interior surface with half diluted dish soap, rinse it clear, then wear. It works on masks with your nose inside, though you are breathing through your mouth. I could see it working on glasses as well.
    Also make sure your face mask is well sealed over your nose and your glasses shouldn’t fog. If your glasses are fogging, then your mask doesn’t have a good fit over the nose.

  45. Jen says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: Mea culpa. That distinction was lost on me, I’ve become so accustomed to the inverse.