With everything going on in the world today, it may be hard to believe that whether or not to wear a face mask has become one of the most, if not THE most, contentious topics. For many, an initial lack of knowledge about the transmission method for the novel SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 virus has caused some lingering doubt regarding the need for face masks and coverings.
However, numerous mainstream studies, scientists, and doctors agree that the virus is transmitted through the air and many of them believe that COVID’s dominant route for spreading is airborne transmission. When an infected individual sneezes, coughs, exhales, or even speaks, the virus is carried by droplets or aerosols that leave the body. This means that as a direct consequence, their chances of spreading the virus increases whenever they’re near others.
Most experts also agree that the chances of transmission go up even higher in confined areas where the virus is possibly circulating in the air. This has led to countless businesses requiring face masks for visitors and in fact, several cities, counties, and even some states are requiring a face mask when inside any business.
Dr. Erin M. Sorrell, an assistant research professor in Georgetown University’s department of microbiology and immunology, was recently quoted as saying “Basic face masks can prove to be helpful if worn and used properly. They trap coughs and sneezes that the wearer releases and can provide a barrier to exposing others.”
The above facts are fairly common knowledge but because of the intense focus on close-proximity transmission and the need for face masks indoors, many are unsure if they are in fact in less danger of contracting the virus when outdoors. Or at least negligible enough so that it negates the need for face coverings and other precautions.
Are There Studies?
While there are few peer-reviewed stats regarding contact tracing and the transmission of COVID-19 when outdoors, you should be aware of what has been found so far. The fact is, the risk of infection may be greater when you’re in enclosed indoor spaces, but the virus can indeed spread while outdoors as well. This is significantly more-so when in crowded areas where maintaining a 6-foot social distance at all times may be hard to accomplish.
One recent unpublished study of 110 Covid-19 cases in Japan found that you’re 18.7 times more likely to catch the virus when indoors as opposed to out in the open air. However, epidemiologists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine stated in an unpublished review article that, “The difference in transmission risk between households and larger communal settings is unclear, as is the difference between indoor and outdoor transmission.”
It can be tricky for scientists to test how far the virus can travel or linger when outdoors simply because in general, scientists prefer to carry out experiments in closed systems in order to be able to forego situations that may skew the results. Which of course is pretty hard to do in an outdoor setting.
With that in mind, a bit of depressing news came in April when a laboratory experiment found that the COVID-19 virus survived three hours when airborne. However, the experiment was conducted in an indoor lab and the artificial conditions may not be completely applicable to outdoor situations.
What About the Wind?
This one is still open for debate, mainly because there just aren’t any peer reviewed studies that lay out a definitive answer. On one side, some say it is reasonable to assume that being downwind of an infected person may increase the chances of infection. While another side of the coins indicates that higher winds might help stop the spread when outdoors.
First, look at the mathematical model that consisted of two virtual humans and used fluid dynamics that accounted for influencers such as condensation and evaporation. It suggests that wind may actually cause cough droplets to fly over longer distances and that that wind might enable transmission to occur over at least 10 feet.
Then, there’s the Singapore comparison of weather that found greater COVID-19 transmission with higher humidity and temperatures, while higher wind speed showed fewer cases and deaths.
Do I Always Need to Wear a Face Mask When Outside?
The short answer: it depends. If you’re outside and the wind is still and you’re unable to maintain social distancing, you should definitely wear a face mask. Even if you’re feeling well, you could be infected and currently asymptomatic, meaning you could transmit the virus to anyone in close proximity.
If you’re working out and enjoying the sun or otherwise involved in strenuous activities like running or cycling, you should be alone or only partner with a member of your household. In other words, it would be wise to forgo any marathons or group riding sessions (unless you maintain at least that 6-feet apart). A mask can get damp fairly quickly, which not only makes it uncomfortable and significantly harder to breathe, a damp face mask is less effective at stopping transmission than a dry one. Furthermore, an uncomfortable face mask is likely to entice you to inadvertently adjust it and otherwise touch it, possibly spreading contamination from unclean hands.
Ventilation appears to be the main factor as to why you’re safer outside. Enclosed environments inherently provide circulated air, which means contaminated air will circulate as well. Poor ventilation may well explain why the spread of COVID-19 has become so prevalent in places such as public transportation and nursing homes.
A good majority of experts seem to agree that face masks reduce our chances of spreading the virus further. While it may be the “new norm” for us to wear them when indoors, at this point it appears that it totally depends on the situation when outside.
If you’re feeling any of the known symptoms of the Coronavirus, you should wear one at all times, whether inside or out. If you’re unable to be “downwind” of those near you or social distancing is impossible while outdoors, you should definitely consider wearing a face mask.