On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed outdoor masking guidelines. They declared that fully vaccinated people can go maskless outdoors unless they are in a big crowd of strangers, and the unvaccinated can also forego masks when walking, biking, or running only with members of their COVID-19 “pod” or congregating with small groups of vaccinated people.
Not everyone is adopting the new guidelines. While the Pennsylvania Department of Health adopted the new recommendations, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said his state is keeping their more restrictive ones.
The Inquirer turned to a Los Angeles Times opinion writer and a Drexel environmental engineering professor to debate: Can Americans mostly ditch outdoor masks at this point in the pandemic?
Yes: The risk is low, and living with ‘zero risk’ is impossible.
By Mariel Garza
With about 40% of people in the U.S. having received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, you may be wondering if now is the time that places ditch the mask mandates and free the people from the tyranny of having to breathe in our own smelly coffee breath.
The 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. Since we now know with confidence that transmission primarily happens 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 when the risk of infection spreading this way is negligible.
Now before anyone blasts off an angry note calling me a COVID-19 denier, I’d like to point out that I was an early mask adopter, covering up outside even before it was fashionable. At that time, scientists weren’t sure how COVID-19 was spreading. Some health officials actually told 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 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. It didn’t spread much, if at all, in outdoor locations.
“There are estimates that suggest maybe 1 in 1,000 infections happen outside,” Ashish Jha, a general internist and dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told National Public Radio. And those are estimates, rather than documented cases of transmission.
Jha is one of a growing number of public health experts who see the benefit of easing blanket outdoor face mask requirements.
But not all experts want to see exposed faces outside anytime soon. The reason is because, as Chicago internist 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.
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.
“It’s also counterproductive to force heavy-handed restrictions on people when there’s no evidence they are necessary.”
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 alongside other public locations last fall as COVID-19 cases began spiking. But there was no evidence that monkey bars and swing sets are COVID-19 vectors.
The backlash from frustrated parents was so swift and severe (and justified) that the ill-advised action was almost immediately reversed.
It’s time to give the people who have been faithfully following face masks protocols a low-risk break.
Mariel Garza is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, where a version of this piece first appeared.
No: Let’s stay patient as more Americans get vaccinated.
By Charles N. Haas
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come through with guidance to help those vaccinated against COVID-19 navigate the dos and don’ts of outdoor activities. Under the new guidelines, some, though not all, outdoor situations free the vaccinated from the necessity of a mask. Many public indoor activities remain unchanged. And the guidelines for the unvaccinated remain: wear masks in public all the time.
The good news: For the vaccinated, masks are certainly not needed when outdoors and distancing from unvaccinated people from outside of one’s “pod.” The ambient ventilation is sufficient to assure dissipation of any virus.
However, even outdoors crowding will make masking a necessary layer of protection. Think of an arena or stadium with no-longer-distanced seating. Think of lining up for food at an outside vendor or food truck. Think of standing with strangers waiting for a bus or train. At the current state of vaccine penetration and COVID-19 prevalence, where the majority of the population has not been fully vaccinated, masking remains necessary.
While vaccinated people have a large degree of protection against illness from COVID-19, especially severe illness, they can still carry the virus to others. Unvaccinated people can still become infected and transmit, especially before symptoms are noticed, and even in infected people without symptoms. Therefore, masking to protect the unvaccinated remains essential.
Additionally, while indoor get-togethers of small groups of individuals who have been fully vaccinated present a lower risk, indoor spaces, where both vaccinated and nonvaccinated persons come together, such as stores, terminals, or gyms, should still be regarded as places where masking is essential. The length of time spent in indoor spaces with nonvaccinated persons increases risk and makes adherence to masking critical.
“It remains clear that multiple layers of protection are still needed to crush the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It remains clear that multiple layers of protection are still needed to crush the COVID-19 pandemic. While that now includes vaccination, it still also extends to ventilation, distancing, masking, and handwashing. It is too early to give up on any of these layers, particularly masking.
Masking is a low-effort way to protect the health of the community. While it adds some inconvenience, no more than remembering to carry your wallet when you leave your home, there is no evidence of detriment in the general population from masking. We need to continue the habit that we’ve adopted over the last year to protect the community until high levels of vaccination are attained.
The good news is that the vaccine supply is no longer limiting. Public health authorities need to strive to promote vaccine accessibility in all segments of the population and to work with trusted communicators to get to populations where trust and knowledge may have been less. More effective ways to combat disinformation are needed.
With these efforts, we can get to a place where we can relax further restrictions on masking. In countries where the COVID-19 curve has been crushed, such as New Zealand (via aggressive distancing and closure precautions) and Israel (via aggressive vaccination), the relaxation of masking has been found to be feasible and safe and a return to normalcy has occurred. One can hope that there will be sufficient acceptance and uptake of vaccination in the U.S. to permit the same in the future. But that time is not yet here.
Charles N. Haas is LD Betz professor of environmental engineering at Drexel University.