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Set Us Free From Outdoor Mask Mandates!

The science says it’s safe to start letting go of some of the strictures we’ve followed during the dark days of the pandemic.

Fans wear masks on Landsdowne Street as they walk to Fenway Park in Boston.
Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

As coronavirus cases ticked up in early November, something utterly bizarre happened in Massachusetts: In light of those rising numbers, Governor Charlie Baker issued a rule mandating that people would be required to wear face masks at all times while outdoors in public, whether or not they were around others. (Violators were subject to a $300 fine.) However alarming that surge might have been, the notion that this new rule would mitigate it was ludicrous: Approximately zero cases of Covid-19 on earth have been transmitted by someone who is outside, alone. In an interview with Boston Magazine, Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus compared Baker’s diktat with attempting to curb HIV by encouraging people to wear condoms when they masturbate.

But this week, Baker doubled down on his November order at a press conference, defending his state’s strict outdoor mask requirements even as countries like Israel and American cities such as Nashville, Charleston, and Denver shifted their mandates to indoors-only. Meanwhile, it’s never been clear that requiring people to adhere  strictly to outdoor masking as a matter of policy has had much bearing on whether the practice is embraced: In many placesparticularly in Northeastern cities (including Boston, where I live)outdoor masking simply persists as a strong social norm.

Well over a year into a global pandemic that forced us all collectively to apply unfamiliar information to our everyday lives and adopt new behaviors to meet the public health challenges we’ve faced, we’re on the cusp of the reverse: learning how to let them go. As cases and death rates subside in many places and vaccinations go up, many of the questions of what we need to do to navigate the evolving risk landscape are nuanced and complicated. Some, however, are not: Save for dense gatherings (like farmers markets, rallies, and protests, for example), outdoor masking is not necessary—and its ongoing ubiquity is meaningless political theater.

By now, we have overwhelming evidence that Covid-19 is highly unlikely to spread outdoors, where pathogens dissipate. One oft-cited Chinese study found only one likely case of outdoor transmission out of over 7,300, which happened between two friends having a prolonged, face-to-face conversation. In Ireland, only 0.1 percent of cases were linked to outdoor transmission, mostly among construction workers and athletes spending long stretches of time in close quarters. A Japanese study estimated that the transmission risks of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are 19 times worse inside. Zeynep Tufekci, a high-profile commentator on the pandemic who has tracked outbreaks associated with multiple cases, says that, to her knowledge, there has never been an outdoor-only superspreader event. In short, the rare cases that have been linked to outdoor transmission tend to involve considerable close contacta far cry from passing someone maskless on the street or in the park. And according to multiple experts, even the concerning new variants don’t fundamentally change this calculus.

But if we’ve seen a fair amount of adaptation to mounting evidence of the reduced danger of outdoor activity leading to Covid transmission relative to indoor activitymany cities reduced parking to allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating and eventually reopened parks that should never have been closed in the first placemask-wearing in extremely low-risk outdoor contexts has been oddly persistent.

Walking around Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, most people I see are masked at all times while walking down the sidewalk; others wear their masks on their chins and pull them up when they pass people. But even that is unnecessary, given what we know about risk: This simply isn’t a disease that’s transmitted through fleeting outdoor proximity. And if outdoor masking is hardly the most inconvenient thing on earth, it is annoyingparticularly for the acne-prone, or people who wear glasses or lipstick. It’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and considerably less pleasant than having air hit your face.

None of these things would be remotely important if there was a shred of evidence that outdoor masking at all times actually curbed transmission rates. But insofar as such proof doesn’t exist, the case for abiding by stringent outdoor mask rules is largely one of social convention. Proponents argue that it’s become an important symbol of solidarity and common courtesy; shifting outdoor mask norms puts us on a slippery slope toward axing social distancing altogether.

But the purpose of mask-wearing isn’t to send a message. If it were, we could just iron whatever slogan we wanted to onto a T-shirt. The point of mask-wearing is to reduce infection, and there is simply no reason to believe that wearing a mask while walking to the grocery store accomplishes this, whether or not someone might pass you on the way. If a militant commitment to gestures that don’t actually do anything was more understandable a year ago, they’re downright baffling now. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Ugh, so something as small as wearing a mask is just too much for you,” know this: You’re insisting on operating within a moral paradigm that’s been rendered moot by a year’s worth of peer-reviewed research.

Not only is Covid-19 extraordinarily unlikely to be passed on among strangers briefly sharing a sidewalk, it’s also rarely transmitted through individual “failures of militance” more generally. The vast majority of cases are transmitted within homes or workplaces, where workers could more easily mitigate risk or stay home entirely if they were provided with more material support to do so or had the power to demand it from lawmakers. Our sense of public solidarity could be more usefully applied to rallying to the aid of those who are caught in these situations, but such practices are far less palatable to capital than nonsensically mandating outdoor face masks in spite of the science that flies in the face of such demands and which primarily allows elected officials to Take Covid Seriously performatively without pissing off a monied constituency.

And Trumpland’s quest to turn all things coronavirus into culture-war wedge issues has not only impacted Trump’s own fans but those who revile himas adherence to certain guidelines has shown. As Tufekci put it, “It’s pretty clear that [masks] have also become a talisman of sorts, essentially signaling belonging in a tribe, rather than a public health tool that’s quite useful under certain circumstances.”

But very few outdoor activities are among those circumstances! And for a population that’s understandably exhausted from following all the pandemic rules, just as the end of the crisis rolls into viewa phenomenon The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull dubbed “pandemic senioritisshedding a persistently irritating one can be a morale booster. Letting go of the need to mask up for casual adventures outdoors will feel good and help us stick to the interventions that matter, and it will start to make the miserable experience we’ve all shared just a little bit easier. After all, taking stock of the science and changing our behavior to do what’s best for each other is what we’ve been trying to do all along.