You don’t need to wear a face mask outdoors to prevent coronavirus. But experts say to carry one with you

A look at some face masks used during the coronaovirus pandemic

A United Airline ticketing employee wears an Ohio State University face mask, April 17, 2020. John Kuntz, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It’s been more than two months since the U.S. confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, but there’s still a lot of confusion over wearing cloth face masks in public.

The most diligent Ohio residents always wear them, even if they’re alone in their car or walking apart from other people at a public park or beach. But do you really need to be wearing a mask at all times to protect yourself and others?

Experts say no, but recommend carrying a cloth face mask in a paper bag or envelope in your pocket in case you need it. They also recommend carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer to clean your hands, should you need to put on and remove your mask.

“When I’m outside walking and no one’s around, I don’t have a mask on," said Dr. Amy Ray, the medical director of infection prevention and employee health at MetroHealth. "But I do have one with me.”

It’s a good idea to carry a face mask in case the public space you’re visiting becomes crowded, or if you’re passing others on a sidewalk or hiking trail, Ray said. The chance of passing the virus to someone as you pass them is low, Ray said, but she often puts on her face mask in those situations out of courtesy or etiquette.

Experts initially said the public did not need to wear homemade masks to mitigate the spread of the virus. The tone shifted as Ohio officially recommended the use of cloth face masks in public on April 4, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the same recommendation.

The CDC now recommends people wear face masks in any public setting where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, such as a grocery store or a pharmacy. But the guidelines do not specifically address if a person should wear a face mask whenever they go outside.

There’s no need to wear a face mask outdoors if you’re not going to be near other people, experts told cleveland.com. Maintaining a six-foot distance between yourself and others should be enough to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“I see people wearing it on the street without anybody around them,” said Dr. Elie Saade, the director of infection control at University Hospitals. “I don’t think that’s helpful to them or anybody else.”

The purpose of cloth face masks is to prevent COVID-19 from passing through the air in the form of respiratory droplets that are released as a person coughs or sneezes. Face masks are primarily intended to prevent an asymptomatic person carrying the virus from passing it on to someone else, experts say.

Since epidemiologists have largely studied the viral transmission within human populations that are within indoor environments, there’s not much data to make exact decisions about masks outdoors, said Dr. Angelo DeLucia, an associate professor of molecular virology and cancer biology at Northeast Ohio Medical University.

Still, studies have suggested respiratory droplets typically fall to the ground within six feet. That’s why experts recommend keeping a six-foot distance between yourself and others when you leave the house. If you’re maintaining that distance, you should be okay to be outside without wearing a mask, DeLucia said.

“The soundest advice would be to simply try to keep six feet away from whoever, mask or no mask,” he said.

In fact, there are several reasons wearing a face mask all the time might not be advisable, experts say. Homemade face masks may be uncomfortable, so wearing one all the time could increase the chance of a person touching their face. Medical experts have consistently advised against touching your face to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Even if you can get used to the feeling of the mask, it may become less effective the longer you wear it. If a person is coughing and sneezing into a cloth mask, it could become damp and lose its ability to contain those respiratory droplets, Ray said.

“You might train yourself to be less likely to touch your face. But you might be diminishing the mask’s ability to contain secretions,” Ray said.

Ultimately, experts said, the most important thing to remember is that wearing a homemade face mask is not a replacement for physical distancing.

“Wearing a mask does not change the need for social distancing," Ray said. "So if you’re wearing a mask, that doesn’t mean you can get closer to people.”

Read more cleveland.com stories:

Coronavirus can live up to 3 hours in air in a lab. But it’s totally OK to share air walking outside

Do runners leave wake of coronavirus droplets? Simulation shows outside exercisers should keep greater distance

Coronavirus: Where to buy masks, face coverings to protect yourself and others in public

What you might not know about using face masks to protect against coronavirus

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