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What's The Point Of Wearing Face Masks Outside & Is It Necessary?

Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager By Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Woman Unloading Groceries From Her Trunk While Wearing a Medical Face Mask

There's nothing straightforward about the COVID-19 pandemic. Conflicting advice and information continue to circulate, especially when it comes to how the virus spreads. While some research suggests the virus may be airborne, many experts think person-to-person spread is the most common. This raises another question: if the virus doesn't spread through the air, do people really need to wear masks outside?

For a more informed decision, mbg spoke with experts to find out if wearing masks outside is necessary. To make sense of the answer, it's important to remember why masks are recommended in the first place. 

The purpose of face coverings and masks. 

Face coverings are not necessarily meant to protect the person wearing them but to protect the people around them. 

"The reason behind wearing a mask is that masks prevent the spread of respiratory droplets from person to person, which may contain the virus," says integrative medicine physician Aditi Nerurkar, M.D., MPH. "There is lots of good research to support this over the past few months from studies done in many parts of the world." These respiratory droplets can spread when a person coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice.

Based on that information, face masks should be worn when a person is within 6 feet of another person who lives outside of their household. This is especially true when social distancing guidelines are hard to maintain, including outdoors in a crowded park, on a running trail, or in a parking lot.

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So, should people wear masks outside? 

Emergency medicine and holistic integrative medicine doctor Eudene Harry, M.D., says, "There is a concern that being inside in enclosed spaces could potentially increase the risk of transmission." That said, any exposure to an infected person might pose a risk.

If a healthy person is outside completely alone or with other members of their household, a mask might not be necessary. Aside from that, Nerurkar tells mbg it's just as important to wear a mask outdoors. The expert recommendation is to wear masks in public spaces, and the outdoors is just "one giant public space," she explains.

To help reduce the risk of spread, Nerurkar provides these three tips:  

  1. Always wear a mask and make sure it covers the mouth and nose for maximum protection. 
  2. When outdoors, continue social distancing by remaining 6 feet apart. 
  3. Spend time in less crowded outdoor areas (keeping safety in mind). 

"Minimizing exposure to large numbers of people indoors and outdoors is key to preventing the spread," she says, "for yourself and others."

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