22 April 2021

Slate: “Do we really still need to wear masks outside?”

In other words, as the pandemic has progressed, so has our understanding of what safety measures are truly most useful, and which aren’t worth the alcohol wipes. And I would like to calmly suggest that now is the time we should consider no longer wearing masks when we walk around outside.

I am not suggesting this simply because I am very sick of wearing a mask at all times outside my home. When it comes to coronavirus spread, evidence shows that being outdoors is very, very safe.

Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician with McMaster University, recently wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star noting that last summer’s outdoor gatherings coincided with an all-time low of cases in the city. While it’s important to mask in outdoor crowds or if you’re hanging out close to someone in a park, Chagla explains, the main message should be that the outdoors is a safe place to be. He gave me a rough sense of how unlikely outdoor transmission is in the scenario where you’re walking unmasked on the sidewalk and briefly pass someone. First, you or the person you’re passing would have to happen to have an asymptomatic infection, he explained, and then everyone would have to be exhaling and inhaling at just the right moment, and also, exchanging enough particles to actually seed another infection: You’re talking about a probability of getting hit by a car, and being struck by lightning.

Shannon Palus

I generally agree with the assessment that the risk of transmission outside is very low – this would provide a possible explanation for the drop in cases during summer: the virus does not suddenly become less infectious in warmer weather (as we can see from the surges in Brazil and India), but human behavior changes, from staying indoors to going outside, where natural ventilation reduces the risk.

But I do not think removing outdoor mask mandates is a good idea, not anytime soon anyway. As a reference point, Israel has recently dropped the outdoor mask order, but the measure comes after the majority of their population is fully vaccinated, making the transmission risk vanishingly small. If health authorities start issuing ‘nuanced’ guidance for outdoor mask use, I fear a good proportion of people will interpret these however they please and stop wearing masks completely, even in crowded groups. There are already enough exceptions in place, as people take masks off when they’re smoking, drinking or eating on the road, and for small children.

What makes centralized policy more complicated is the (rarely discussed) fact that people who minimize the threat of COVID will be among the first to ditch masks, while also delaying or refusing vaccination. If wearing masks outside stops being mandatory, a likely outcome is that a lot of unvaccinated people start gathering, without masks, leading to new super-spreader events.

I personally try to never take my mask off when I leave the house, because I find it more convenient to keep it on than to take it off and fit it back on every time I go into a store or in public transport. During winter months it is actually comfortable to wear one, as it protects you from the cold wind. As the weather heats up, I will probably find it more difficult to wear constantly masks outside, but hopefully the number of cases will drop enough by then to ease some of the current restrictions.

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