The weather is warming up, and with the expansion of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility, there’s growing hope for a post-pandemic America to soon be reality.
More than 89 million people in the U.S. — about 27% of the total population — have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, many are wondering whether they can safely ditch the mask when they step outdoors this spring.
Masks have been recommended in public for more than a year now, and while some states have lifted mask mandates, several still require masks to be worn outside when social distancing isn’t possible.
Massachusetts has a stricter requirement, mandating that masks be worn outside whether there are other people around or not, according to a list of state masking requirements compiled by AARP.
Since the onset of the pandemic, medical experts have said there’s a lower chance of COVID-19 transmission outside than inside since viral particles disperse more quickly when not in an enclosed location.
The CDC recommends people wear masks outside, but on Thursday, the agency’s director told Today it’s considering lifting its recommendation.
“We’ll be looking at the outdoor masking question, but also in the context of the fact that we still have people who are dying of COVID-19,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.
So is it safe to step outdoors without face masks now that vaccinations have picked up steam?
Experts say it depends.
“I think the guidelines should be based on science and practicality,” Dr. Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and a leading expert on viral transmission, told The New York Times.
“People only have so much bandwidth to think about precautions,” she told the newspaper.I think we should focus on the areas that have highest risk of transmission, and give people a break when the risk is extremely low.”
What to consider when deciding whether to wear a mask outside
Once you’ve determined what public health mandates might be in place for your area, Marr recommends using a “two-out-of-three rule” to discern whether a mask is necessary outside.
“If you’re outdoors, you either need to be distanced or masked,” Marr told the Times. “If you’re not outdoors, you need to be distanced and masked. This is how I’ve been living for the past year. It all comes down to my two-out-of-three rule.”
Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees.
“Outdoor masking in most ordinary circumstances is not going to provide extraordinary value,” he told Yahoo. “If you’re in a crowd where people can’t social distance, masks make sense. But in ordinary outdoor environments, there’s not much value to it.”
You should also take your surroundings into consideration. In a city and constantly passing other people? It’s probably best to mask up, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Yahoo.
Infections can happen outside, but they’re rare — about 1 in 1,000 infections, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, estimated to NPR.
Researchers in Italy determined a person would have to be outside about 31 days in Milan to come in contact with a viral load large enough to infect them, assuming the person avoided crowds and 10% of the population was infected.
Joggers briefly passing each other on a trail are at low risk of transmitting or catching the virus.
Rather, it’s attending packed outdoor gatherings or sitting next to someone for a long period of time that might up your risk, NPR reported.
“I think if somebody were right next to you and spending, let’s say, 10, 15 minutes running in that little stream of breath that you’re exhaling, there might be a risk,” Jha told NPR. “But somebody you’re running by who is there for just a second, the risk is — it’s extremely rare.”
Marr agreed that crossing paths with a solo hiker wouldn’t give her much concern but that passing a large group could slightly elevate risk of transmission, according to the Times.
If you’re outside with other members of your household, masking isn’t necessary, Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, told Yahoo. Same goes for if you’re fully vaccinated and hanging out with other full vaccinated people.
“But that requires a really clear understanding of who the people are [that] you’re around,” Halkitis warned.
Is it too soon?
Some experts argue that the battle to convince the public to don face coverings was hard-won. They say that suggesting people can stop wearing masks may not send the right message.
“It’s premature,” Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco, told The Mercury News. “I think we need to stay the course.”
COVID-19 numbers took a steep dive in the beginning of 2021 but have leveled out in the last month. The 7-day average for daily new cases was nearly 63,000 on April 21, according to data from the New York Times.
There’s also still a large group of people who aren’t eligible for a COVID vaccine — children.
While Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have all begun clinical trials on children, no vaccine has been authorized for kids or teens under the age of 16 and Pfizer alone is authorized for 16- and 17-year-olds.
“As we as we get closer to having everyone vaccinated, especially adolescents, I think we can start talking about it,” Rutherford told Mercury News. “But now we need to exercise caution, even if (the virus) isn’t banging on the doors of the hospitals.”
Schnaffer said he expects the outdoor mask recommendation to lift once a majority of Americans are vaccinated, perhaps by the end of the summer.
“If we can get up to 80 percent of people vaccinated by that time, then we can start putting our masks aside,” he told Yahoo. “Until then, during this period of transition where the virus and vaccines are still in a race, we ought to be cautious. Masks are so inexpensive, so effective, and so easy to use — please don’t get hung up on this. Wear masks.”
All-in-all, experts say it comes down to weighing the pros and cons.
“The risk of getting COVID-19 is lower outside, but it’s not zero,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, told Yahoo. “If there isn’t anyone else around, it is probably OK to go maskless. I would still be careful around other people, especially crowds.”