Ask Dr. Hamblin: So when can we stop wearing masks?
Perhaps a bit of weirdness should be expected. Rising vaccinations and burbling variants make for an awkward transition period in which it’s legitimately confusing to know when masking is a necessary and considerate act, and when it’s no more epidemiologically protective than, say, wearing a hat.
Government rules aren’t doing much to help clarify the situation. In places such as D.C., outdoor masking is mostly mandatory and limited indoor dining is permitted, leading to masks in the streets and bare faces in the bar seats. Several dozen states have similar mask mandates for public spaces while also allowing various levels of indoor dining.
The case for keeping outdoor mask mandates starts with the fact that masks are highly effective in general. They block viral spittle and may also warm the nose and mouth to create a humid microclimate that interferes with the virus’s ability to dock with our cells. Requiring masks outdoors, some believe, is also a simple way to enforce usage indoors, where a mandate is most defensible. Finally, one could argue that outdoor mask mandates build a sense of social solidarity around taking the pandemic seriously, which might have all sorts of positive spillover effects, such as visually reminding people that the pandemic isn’t over. States now experiencing significant outbreaks, such as Michigan, would surely do well to keep strict rules in place a while longer.
But as more and more of the population is vaccinated, governments need to give Americans an off-ramp to the post-pandemic world. Ending outdoor mask mandates—or at the very least telling people when they can expect outdoor mask mandates to lift—is a good place to start, for a few reasons.
Requiring that people always wear masks when they leave home, and especially in places with low levels of viral transmission, is overkill. As mentioned, the coronavirus disperses outside, posing little risk to people who are walking alone or even swiftly passing by strangers. In fact, almost all of the documented cases of outdoor transmission have involved long conversations, or face-to-face yelling. The risk calculation changes if you’re standing in a crowd: Some uneven evidence suggests that the Black Lives Matter protests last summer increased local infections. But that’s an easy carve-out. States can end blanket mandates and still recommend outdoor masking by anyone experiencing symptoms, or in crowds. (Extended conversations pose their own risk, but when people are vaccinated, the odds of viral transmission are probably somewhere between microscopic and nonexistent.)
Outdoor mask mandates might also turn people off from obeying better rules. “Given the very low risk of transmission outdoors, I think outdoor mask use, from a public-health perspective, seems arbitrary,” Muge Cevik, an infectious-disease and virology expert at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, told The Washington Post. “I think it affects the public’s trust and willingness to engage in much higher-yield interventions. We want people to be much more vigilant in indoor spaces.”