As discussion of reopening parts of the country amps up at the White House and in local governments, so have mandates about where and when face masks must be worn. Many individual businesses across the nation have already instituted facial covering requirements for patrons but executive orders have been more slowly rolled out.
Cities like Austin, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York have ordered citizens to wear masks during any public outing, citing concern over viral spread. Well-intentioned as the legally enforceable mandates are, however, requiring the facial coverings could give Americans false confidence and, in some cases, put them at greater risk of infection.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued the mandate this week, specifically requiring masks for those unable to stay more than six feet away from each other in public places.
"Stopping the spread is everything,” Cuomo said on Wednesday. “How can you not wear a mask when you’re going to come close to a person?" But according to the scientists advising the president and issuing national guidelines, a mask doesn't greatly improve circumstances for close-quartered strangers.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their recommendation for wearing masks but were quick to point out the fallibility of public use of facial coverings. They also noted that masks should be worn in circumstances where six feet cannot be maintained at all times, but added that the makeshift covering was no replacement for social distancing.
We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms. In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.
It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus. CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.
The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance. (Emphasis Added)
Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams further clarified that wearing facial coverings is not useful at all in protecting the wearer from becoming infected. The only potential benefit could be reducing water droplet spray from people who are unknowingly infected. He was clear to point out that even when wearing a mask, social distancing practices were to be observed at all times. The face coverings simply add an extra layer of voluntary protection.
"If you do choose to wear a face mask, wash your hands first," Adams said during a recent White House briefing. "Do not touch your face while wearing a face covering...If people do choose to wear a face covering, they're wearing it to protect their neighbors."
As Dr. Adams also pointed out, people unaccustomed to wearing masks are fare more likely to touch their face as the added garment feels foreign and can irritate the skin. Breathing also causes the masks to become moist and unpleasant, which can lead to involuntary facial touching. As pointed out by every medical expert who has discussed social distancing and sanitation guidelines, touching your face is one of the easiest ways to spread germs from surfaces to a human respiratory system.
Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden issued a scathing criticism on Wednesday of President Trump's choice not to wear a mask. The president has been tested at least twice for the Wuhan coronavirus, each time with negative results.
"I wish he would stop talking and let the scientists speak," Biden said during a virtual town hall. "I don't walk out of this house without a mask on. I don't walk out in my yard to talk to the Secret Service without a mask on. It's critical. When I get off this, I'm picking up a mask on the table there because there are people running this TV apparatus down here...We have an obligation. We have an obligation to be responsible."
Beyond criticism of the president's personal choice, however, Biden didn't explain what the mask was meant to do or the futility of a fabric garment against a virus with a still largely unknown infection rate.
Mandates from local governments and politicians usurping the language of the CDC guidelines also run the risk of giving false confidence to those who feel that mandated masks will make large gatherings of people safer. As the CDC, Dr. Adams, and other experts have repeatedly pointed out, that simply isn't true. Requiring masks for public outings might not be a bad idea, but the mandates should come with complete language about their efficacy and who they could protect. Until then, it seems, the best bet is to continue to remain at least six feet away from each other, no matter what is covering your face.
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