When and Where Should You Wear a Mask?

Sometimes the answers can be more complicated than you think.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of February 2022, wearing a mask is still a highly-recommended method of preventing COVID-19 infection. The general rule is to "wear a mask when you're less than six feet away from another person, unless it is somebody from your inner circle that you trust," said Antonio Crespo, MD, medical director for Orlando Health Infectious Disease.

Young woman putting on face mask while being at home during virus epidemic. When to Wear a Mask Durning Coronavirus Pandemic
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Overall, more mask use is a good thing, according to doctors: "Wearing a mask helps prevent respiratory droplets from spreading as far as they otherwise would without a mask," said Lisa M. Lee, PhD, a public health expert specializing in infectious disease epidemiology and public health ethics at Virginia Tech. "If a person has a respiratory infection—in this case, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19—breathing, coughing, and sneezing can spew droplets that travel six to 14 feet away. Wearing a mask reduces the amount of space these droplets travel and will help prevent transmission," explained Lee.

Mask-wearing policies—as do social distancing guidelines—vary by state. Available as of March 2022, the CDC COVID-19 Community Level tool gives an idea of what steps of prevention you should take in different areas of the US. Still, there isn't always a clear answer as to when you need to wear a mask during specific situations—especially since getting a vaccine has been added to the list of ways to protect yourself from COVID-19.

Health asked three different infectious disease or public health experts for their takes on the best public health practices regarding wearing face masks, during specific situations.

Meet the Experts

  • Catherine Troisi, PhD, infectious disease epidemiologist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • Lisa M. Lee, PhD, public health expert specializing in infectious disease epidemiology and public health ethics at Virginia Tech
  • Suzanne Williard, PhD, associate dean for global health and clinical professor division of advanced nursing practice at Rutgers School of Nursing

Should You Wear a Mask at the Grocery Store?

Lee noted that wearing a mask and social distancing can be helpful while grocery shopping. "It's not a perfect fix, but it does help a lot. Be careful and keep your distance as much as you can."

In general, it depends on the store, the location, and area regulations. For example, Kroger mentions on its website that wearing a mask is optional for its customers unless local or state guidelines indicate otherwise, as of April 2022.

Even if you don't wear or are not required to wear a mask, it can be beneficial to keep yourself safe by limiting your time in the store. "Often, it's difficult to maintain social distancing while shopping at a store…you'll also want to have a list with you to decrease the time you're in there. Don't go just to shop, but be purposeful while you're there," added Willard.

Should You Wear a Mask While Driving or if You Have To Take Public Transportation?

Wearing a mask in the car is not necessary. "Don't drive with it on if you're in your own car," said Williard. Further, all experts agreed on wearing a mask on public transportation. "In a public place where other people have touched things, these are all opportunities for transmission. Masks alone won't do everything, you still need to stay six feet away from others when possible and wash your hands after coming off of public transportation," said Lee. Troisi said to also avoid public transportation if possible. Whether you need to use public transportation or not, as of April 2022, the CDC is no longer enforcing its order requiring masks on public transportation but still recommends doing so for public transportation indoor settings.

Should You Wear a Mask in Your Own Home or While Visiting a Friend's Home?

The decision to wear a mask in your home—or someone else's—rests on different factors that may or may not warrant the use of a mask. Those factors might include situations where either party has a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask, is immunocompromised, or cares for others who are or might be sick.

"…[If] you're a health care worker who is exposed at work, then yes, wear one because you're at a high risk of infection and you want to protect your family members. Another reason you might is if someone in your family is sick with COVID-19," said Troisi.

Visiting another person's house is a risk, Willard added. That can still be the case regardless of either person's vaccination status. "You don't know if the friend you're visiting is infected—they might not know. Even if you feel sure that they're okay to be around, you really can't tell just by looking at someone. Any instance where you're pushing breath out, including talking, will put respiratory droplets into the air," explained Lee.

Should You Wear a Mask to Routine Health or Personal Service Appointments?

As of August 2021, the CDC has provided considerations for non-hospital settings, such as some doctors' offices. Essentially, the facilities are encouraged to inform patients of preventive measures for their locations—which likely could include wearing a mask during the visit.

However, in some situations, it might be worth determining if keeping a health appointment is necessary based on your needs rather than just masking up and going. "Don't just go to the doctor, especially if you might have COVID-19—call," said Troisi. Furthermore, Troisi added that you have to think about if the risks of going to an appointment outweigh the benefits, particularly if you are caring for or in a high-risk group.

Still, "[a] health care provider will be the most knowledgeable about how to avoid getting infected with COVID-19. They'll likely have one patient in at a time and require everyone to wear a mask unless you're getting something done that requires your mask to be off," said Lee. Willard added that at a dentist's office specifically, the dentist would let you know when to remove and replace your mask.

Going to places like hair and nail salons might also involve some of the same requirements. "Many places are taking additional steps to prevent infection, like having one person in at a time, no congregating in the waiting area, having people wait in the car, and cleaning after each client. A mask alone won't fix everything, but it is an important part of a system to keep everything safe," said Lee.

Should You Wear a Mask During Outside Exercise?

As of January 2022, the CDC indicated that engaging in outdoor activities offers less exposure to COVID-19. Troisi added: "…we are…confident that it's more likely to spread in a contained environment, like an office or house, rather than outside." So, if you plan to do some outdoor exercise, masks are optional.

Willard noted that choosing a mask outside depends on your surroundings—in other words, how populated the outside area is. However, there are some situations where wearing a mask outside might become necessary. In those situations, using a mask outdoors is recommended for those in a crowded environment who are not fully vaccinated or taking care of someone with a compromised immune system.

With that in mind, being spread out when you're outside exercising would be your best bet if you plan to go without a mask. "You still need that distance, so you should be in a place where it's possible to maintain that separation…" said Troisi.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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