Opinion: Give people a break from their smelly coffee breath. Ease up on the outdoor mask rules

Mariel Garza
·4 min read
ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 17: Wearing a face mask, Bliss Cordova, age 2 1/2, of Chino, runs around Downtown Disney chasing bubbles on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 in Anaheim, CA. More than a year after closing due to the pandemic, the theme parks at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim are scheduled to open April 30 with limited capacity and restrictions on some attractions. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Bliss Cordova, 2½, of Chino runs around Downtown Disney last month in Anaheim. (Los Angeles Times)

With nearly 40% of people in the U.S. having received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, you may be wondering if now is the time that California and other places ditch the mask mandates and free the people from the tyranny of having to breathe in our own smelly coffee breath.

This answer is: No way. What are you, a misanthrope?

But also, yes, it is time.

Let me explain. Until we reach the point where either enough people are vaccinated against COVID-19 or the only SARS-CoV-2 variant in circulation is no more dangerous than pink eye, mask mandates are one of our best defenses. And since we now know with confidence that transmission is primarily happening indoors, dumping mandates for enclosed public places like factories and airplanes would be reckless.

But it's entirely reasonable and, frankly, rational to relax the outdoor face covering rules as we head into warmer weather. There's very little point in forcing people to continue covering up to take a stroll down the street, hike in the park or sunbathe on a beach, which is still the law in California, when the risk of infection spreading this way is so low as to be negligible.

Now before anyone blasts off an angry note accusing me of being a COVID-19 denier, I’d like to point out that I was an early mask adopter during this pandemic, covering up outside even before it fashionable. At that time, scientists weren't sure how COVID-19 was spreading, and some health officials were actually telling people to not use masks. But to me it just made sense to throw up a curtain between the access route to my respiratory system and the potentially dangerous microbes in the air.

It's pretty clear that some of the things we thought in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic weren't quite right. For example, the virus didn't end up spreading via surfaces. It wasn't only sick people who were capable of spreading infection. Bleach injections were not promising infection deterrents (to be fair, only one elected official actually suggested that). And it didn't spread much, if at all, in outdoor locations.

“There are estimates that suggest maybe 1 in 1,000 infections happen outside,” Dr. Ashish Jha, a general internist and dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, told National Public Radio on Wednesday. And those are estimates, rather than documented cases of transmission.

“There are reasons to believe that ... if you're just out and about walking around, it's probably even much less than that,” he said, adding that if transmission is happening outdoors, it's more likely in a crowded places, like a rally, where people are congregating for extended periods.

Jha is one of a growing number of public health experts who see the benefit of easing blanket outdoor face mask requirements. It’s a question that infectious disease officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are pondering as well.

But not all experts want to see exposed faces outside anytime soon. The reason is because, as Chicago internist Dr. Jay Bhatt put it, "the risk is not zero."

That may be true, but you know what else fails to drive the risk of COVID-19 infection to zero? Wearing a face covering. Getting vaccinated. Leaving the house. Not leaving the house.

There’s always going to be at least a slight risk of infection, no matter how cautious we are. But restrictions are most effective when they focus on the riskiest activities rather than trying to reduce all risk to zero, which is impossible in any case.

It's also counterproductive to force heavy-handed restrictions on people when there's no evidence they are necessary. It miscommunicates the real risk for infection to those who aren't up on the facts, while just annoying those who are.

Case in point: California health officials decided to shut down outdoor playgrounds along with all sorts of other public locations last fall as COVID-19 cases began spiking. But they did so despite the fact that there was no evidence that monkey bars and swing sets are COVID-19 vectors, and people knew it.

The backlash from frustrated parents was so swift and severe (and justified) that the ill-advised action was almost immediately reversed. It makes you wonder how many people decided at that moment that public health officials just didn't know what they were talking about and stopped following any of their advice.

C'mon, it's time to ease up on the face mask rules for outdoors. It's time to give the people who have been faithfully following face masks protocols a low-risk break.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.