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.