Five places to wear a mask even if you don’t have to

Even though the pandemic is far from over, mask mandates are being lifted across the world. But here is why you shouldn’t bin your mask just yet.

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Photo by Anna Shvets
 

 

Even though Omicron continues to spread at lightning speed, mandates for wearing masks are starting to lift in most of the world. The UK ended mask mandates in January of this year, despite experiencing a surge in COVID-19 infections. Earlier this month, the US announced that people wouldn’t have to wear masks on plane, trains or buses.

For the most part, the movement of air outside is enough to reduce the chances of infection. But as life begins to return to pre-pandemic activities, and music concerts and festivals are starting to be held again, the exception could be if you are at an outside music gig and right at the front near the band.

Those who have long felt face masks were unnecessary have been jubilant at one more signifier of “getting back to normal”. But there is a significant proportion of people who continue to mask up, above all those particularly vulnerable to the disease or those who live with people that are.

But what if you’re somewhere in the middle? Maybe you think masks are an annoyance and would ideally not wear them, but you’re not convinced either that it’s time to get rid of masks entirely given how high transmission is in many places. There are still locations where it is advisable to mask up – here are five examples.

1. On public transport like buses

Buses, trains and trams don’t have adequate ventilation systems to filter out pathogens like the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In cities, these modes of transport are often extremely crowded and tend to carry people travelling to provide essential services in hospitals or older people who are more vulnerable to the virus. Wearing a mask can protect these more at-risk people, but also protect you in a tightly crowded space.

2. In crowded shops or supermarkets

Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, uses a cigarette smoking analogy to assess risk in a public place. “If someone were smoking, would the smell and taste of cigarettes quickly fill the air? If yes, so would the virus.” So in a huge supermarket with high ceilings, the risk is probably low. But in stores with lower ceilings and narrow aisles, the risk is going to be higher. 

3. Travelling on a plane

Planes have much better air filtration systems than trains or buses, but nevertheless people are packed tightly together for several hours. For those who are older, immunocompromised or who have children who are too young for the vaccine, it would be a good idea to wear a mask. Even if you don’t fall into any of these categories, the high possibility of reinfection with Omicron suggests it’s sensible to wear a mask to avoid a trip being affected by having COVID-19, even if it’s mild.

4. When you’re feeling sick

If you have any respiratory symptoms such as a cough or sneezing wearing a mask makes sense: if you have undiagnosed COVID-19 it will protect people around you from the virus. Even if you don’t have COVID-19 but have a bad cold or flu, it’s worth protecting people – for people with weak immune systems, these illnesses can still take a heavy toll.

5. In crowds outdoors

For the most part, the movement of air outside is enough to reduce the chances of infection. But as life begins to return to pre-pandemic activities, and music concerts and festivals are starting to be held again, the exception could be if you are at an outside music gig and right at the front near the band. Standing shoulder to shoulder with people singing loudly or screaming could make you infected if you’re there for a while, and similarly standing in a tight-knit crowd with little movement.