Are Masks Necessary Outdoors? – The New York Times


Should you still be wearing a mask outdoors? And how should you reorient your family’s life once the adults have been vaccinated but the children have not yet been?

Those are two Covid-19 questions on many people’s minds, and The Times has just published two stories that address them, based on interviews with experts. A common theme is that it’s OK to start making some changes to your behavior and loosening up in careful ways — or at least to begin thinking about it.

On the issue of outdoor mask wearing, it helps to review a basic fact: There are few if any documented cases of brief outdoor interactions leading to Covid transmission. If you’re passing other people on a sidewalk or sitting near them on a park bench, the exposure of exhaled particles appears to be too small to lead to infection.

“Viral particles quickly disperse in outdoor air, and the risk of inhaling aerosolized virus from a jogger or passers-by are negligible,” my colleague Tara Parker-Pope writes, citing an interview she did with Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech. As Dr. Muge Cevik, an infectious-disease expert at the University of St. Andrews, says, outdoors is “not where the infection and transmission occurs.”

Still, why not try to eliminate even a minuscule potential risk and tell people to wear a mask at all times? Because that’s not an effective way to reduce overall risk. “I think the guidelines should be based on science and practicality,” Marr said. “People only have so much bandwidth to think about precautions.”

There are still important precautions to take, ones that are much more based in science than universal mask wearing. Unvaccinated people should wear masks when in close conversation with people outside their family — even outdoors — and should almost always wear a mask when indoors and not at home. Vaccinated people should continue to wear a mask in many indoor situations, to help contribute to a culture of mask wearing. It’s the decent thing to do when more than half of Americans still are not vaccinated.

Tara’s story includes a delightful graphic that summarizes the advice.

The second question — about what activities unvaccinated children can resume — may be even thornier.

By early this summer, nearly every U.S. adult who wants to be vaccinated will have had the opportunity, but most children will not have gotten a shot. (For now, no children under 16 are eligible.) This combination will create complex decisions for many families — about whether to send children to day care, get together with friends and relatives, eat in restaurants or travel on airplanes, as I describe in an article for the Sunday Review section.

Some families will choose to remain extremely cautious. Others will decide to start resuming many activities. My central argument is that both decisions are grounded in science.

On the one hand, Covid is a new disease, with uncertain long-term effects, which argues for caution. On the other hand, the risks to children appear to be extremely low, which argues for a move toward normalcy. For most children, Covid presents no more risk than a normal flu season, the data suggests.

These charts compare the share of estimated Covid cases that have been fatal, by age group, with the estimated share of fatal flu cases. As you can see, Covid has exacted a brutal toll on adults, far worse than any flu season — but the picture for children is very different:

As with outdoor masks, extreme caution has its own downsides. Months of additional isolation would not be good for families, multiple studies have suggested. Isolation makes it harder for parents to return to work and harder for children to learn, develop social skills and be happy.

In the article, I quote two Covid experts who say that they will not keep their own children cooped up until they are vaccinated. “It’s really important to look at a child’s overall health rather than a Covid-only perspective,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, another expert, at Johns Hopkins University, said. If you let your children go to school during flu season, let them travel in a car or let them go swimming, you’re probably exposing them to more risk than Covid presents to them.

I understand why many people will continue to exercise more caution than the data suggests is necessary (and, to be clear, caution with children is vital until more adults have had the chance to get a vaccine). Covid has been horrible, arguably worse than any other infectious disease in living memory, and it is not over. “We’ve been so traumatized by all of this,” Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist, told Tara Parker-Pope. “I think we need to have a little bit of compassion for the people having trouble letting go.”

Compassion is a good concept. At this stage in the pandemic, different people are going to start making different decisions, and many of those decisions will be defensible. Before lashing out at behavior that is different from your own, maybe it’s worth pausing to ask whether compassion is the better response.



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