Wearing Masks Outdoors is Performative

We need to pick our battles better to actually decrease COVID because science says this one doesn’t do it

image by Solen Feyissa from Unsplash.com

According to a recent NY Times article, prohibiting outdoor activity is unlikely to reduce the spread of the virus, nor is urging people always to wear a mask outdoors.

Worldwide, scientists have not documented any instances of outdoor transmission unless people were in close conversation, Dr. Muge Cevik, an infectious disease specialist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland says.

“The small number of cases where outdoor transmission might have occurred,” she wrote on Twitter, “were associated with close interactions, particularly extended duration, or settings where people mixed indoors alongside an outdoor setting.”

Poorly ventilated indoor spaces can facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances, and in shorter periods of time, than the guidelines suggested, and help fuel the pandemic.

Outdoors? It’s the opposite.

There is a solid scientific reason for the fact that there are relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year of epidemiological work: the open air dilutes the virus very quickly, and the sun helps deactivate it, providing further protection. And super-spreading — the biggest driver of the pandemic — appears to be an exclusively indoor phenomenon, says Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic.

She also says, “I’ve been tracking every report I can find for the past year and have yet to find a confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors. Such events might well have taken place, but if the risk were great enough to justify altering our lives, I would expect at least a few to have been documented by now.”

Why does this matter?

Because “people do not have unlimited energy, so we should ask them to be vigilant where it matters most,” Dr. Cevik said

Telling Americans to wear masks when they’re unnecessary undermines efforts to persuade more people to wear masks where they are vital.

Because remember: Americans are not doing a particularly good job of wearing masks when they make a big difference anyway, such as indoors and when people are close together outdoors.

An article in The Atlantic (published April 13th, 2021) says:

Too many U.S. institutions throughout the pandemic have shown little interest in the act of learning while doing. They etched the conventional wisdoms of March 2020 into stone and clutched their stone-tablet commandments in the face of any evidence that would disprove them.

Liberal readers might readily point to Republican governors who rejected masks and indoor restrictions even as their states faced outbreaks. But the criticism also applies to deep-blue areas. Los Angeles, for instance, closed its playgrounds and prohibited friends from going on beach walks, long after researchers knew that the coronavirus didn’t really spread outdoors.

In the pandemic and beyond, this might be the fundamental crisis of American institutions: They specialize in the performance of bureaucratic competence rather than the act of actually being competent.

Where does wearing masks actually matter and where is it actually effective at preventing the spread of COVID?

The perils of the indoors have been demonstrated scientifically; for example, one study earlier this year found that a sick person was 18.7 times more likely to spread the coronavirus in a “closed environment” (such as a gym, a restaurant, or even a poorly ventilated tent) as opposed to in an “open-air environment.”

And some indoor spaces are likely riskier than others. Earlier this year, Atlantic writer Derek Thompson advised readers to avoid especially “spitty” environments like bars, indoor restaurants, and gyms, where people are more likely to be eating, talking, shouting, singing, or breathing heavily than they are at, say, the grocery store. Restaurant dining in particular has been linked to a heightened risk of coronavirus transmission.

Making people mask up when outside and not close to anyone else while keeping open bars and restaurants is basing COVID public policies on making a profit, not on actual science or health.

For many of the cities which recommend mask-wearing in outdoor settings, they include the caveat “if social distancing cannot be maintained,” because of course, COVID is not so densely permeating the air and atmosphere outside that if one is walking alone outdoors somewhere, they are breathing in COVID. This is illogical and absurd. When walking outside and not within six feet of others, the risk of catching or giving COVID is nill. Especially if there is any kind of a breeze blowing.

You don’t need to wear a mask outside if you’re in a wide, open space, says Jennifer Burgess, D.O., a family medicine physician with Henry Ford Health System. If you’re going outside for a walk and the streets aren’t crowded, there’s no need to wear a mask, she has said.

Wearing a mask indoors while keeping 6 feet apart is appropriate; that 6-foot barrier is recommended because that’s roughly how far droplets can travel.

Being outside is a bit of a different story, though says Dr. Michelle Barron, an infectious disease doctor at UC Health who has been involved with COVID-19 response as the medical director of infection prevention for the hospital system.

She points out that there likely isn’t an issue with taking the mask off once you step outside as long as you keep maintaining that 6-foot barrier.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch from Toronto, Canada said masks are only necessary outdoors when the area is crowded and keeping a safe distance from others isn’t possible. But if one was alone outside, Bogoch said he sees no need for a face covering.

“If you’re walking through the park outside and you’re not near anybody, there’s no reason to put on a mask,” he said.

Thus, wearing masks outside is largely a waste of time, and it isn’t based on science. It’s performative. Especially when spaces like bars and restaurants are open for dining indoors when COVID risk is far higher (whereas outdoors, it’s slim to none).

With people walking outside in the fresh air, assuming they aren’t standing in a tightly packed crowd, there is almost no risk of catching or spreading COVID. And forcing people to wear masks outside is only going to weaken their resolve to follow other rules. We need to pick our battles where it actually matters.

There are a lot of articles popping up right now referring to “hitting a pandemic wall.” “Hitting the wall” is a running metaphor, describing the phenomenon of suddenly running out of energy part way through a long race. And the pandemic has been a super-marathon: We’re heading toward Month 12, one complete lap around the calendar. For this reason alone, we need to more carefully consider public policies with regard to COVID prevention.

People are reaching their limits if they haven’t already. Thus, it’s crucial to enact regulations that actually matter and are effective with regards to preventing the spread. Wearing masks outdoors is not one of them.

And having to mask up all the time, on buses, at work, in grocery stores, and now even when outside going for a walk, is going to significantly chip away at people’s mental health. It already is.

Humans need fresh air for physical and mental health. Let them enjoy breathing it in while walking outside since masking up outside makes almost no difference with spreading or getting COVID (assuming you are not standing in a crowd or hanging out next to someone for an extended period).

Make people mask up where it actually matters.

For further reading on the topic:

The Logic of Pandemic Restrictions is Falling Apart (The Atlantic)

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author. www.brookeenglish.com

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