More people are getting their COVID-19 vaccinations and warmer weather activities have started to take off. Naturally, people are asking: do we still need to keep wearing our masks outside?
The New York Times reports a growing body of research showing that transmission of COVID-19 is far less likely outdoors than indoors, with the risks decreasing as more people get vaccinated and cases continue to decline.
After over a year of mask-wearing and social distancing, it is normal for people to be uncomfortable and even fearful when they cross paths with those not wearing masks. However, whether a mask is needed outdoors depends on local public health rules and whether you and the people you’re with are vaccinated.
Dr. Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech is one of the world’s leading experts on viral transmission. She said that brief encounters with an unmasked person passing you on the sidewalk or a hiking trail are very low risk. Viral particles quickly disperse in outdoor air, and “the risk of inhaling aerosolized virus from a jogger or passers-by is negligible,” she said. “Even if a person coughs or sneezes outside as you walk by, the odds of you getting a large enough dose of virus to become infected remain low.”
When it comes to the guidelines people should base their mask wearing on, Dr. Marr said it should be “on science and practicality. People only have so much bandwidth to think about precautions. 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.”
Dr. Marr implements a “two-out-of-three” rule for deciding when to wear a mask in public spaces or when she doesn’t know someone’s vaccination status. In these situations, she makes sure she’s meeting two out of three conditions: outdoors, distanced and masked. She said, “if you’re outdoors, you either need to be distanced or masked. If you’re not outdoors, you need to be distanced and masked.”
It is absolutely recommended to mask up if you’re talking to someone who isn’t vaccinated for an extended period of time, even if it is outdoors. Your risk of breathing someone else’s air increases the longer and closer you stand to them, especially if you are in a crowded area outdoors. Walking your dog, riding a bike, hiking on a trail or picnicking with members of your household or vaccinated friends are all activities where the risk for contracting the virus is insignificant.
Although more-infectious virus variants have been circulating, the way viral transmission get spread hasn’t changed, virus experts say. Though no vaccine offers 100% immunity, the rate of breakthrough infections so far has been extremely low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported 5,800 cases of breakthrough infections among 75 million vaccinated people. The C.D.C. said vaccinated friends and family members can safely spend time together without masks.
Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, said he understands why some people may be hesitant to give up their masks outdoors: “Some of this is Covid hangover. We’ve been so traumatized by all of this. I think we need to have a little bit of compassion for the people having trouble letting go.”