The Mass. Mask Order Takes Effect: What You Should Know

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People walk along the Commonwealth Mall. on the first day masks are required to be worn in the state. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
People walk along the Commonwealth Mall. on the first day masks are required to be worn in the state. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Starting today, almost all people in Massachusetts who cannot safely practice physical distancing in public must wear a mask or face covering.

The rules do not apply to children under the age of 2 or people who cannot cover their faces due to medical conditions.

Dr. Sharon Wright is senior medical director of infection control and hospital epidemiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She joined WBUR's Morning Edition to explain what this could mean for curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Interview Highlights

On the impact of a statewide public mask order.

I think that it will be effective in a few ways. For most of us who don't wear masks regularly, it's a reminder to keep that social distancing going as much as possible. It also reduces the chance of touching your face after touching surfaces that might be contaminated by others. And I think especially as we head into allergy season, it helps block droplets — from when if I were to sneeze or cough — from getting to the person who's nearby; and hopefully theirs will do the same for me.

I think the one thing that we're not sure of with these cloth face coverings is how much it reduces transmission of viral particles that we might breathe in from the air and from others. It really depends on the material that's used and the size of the particle. But even knowing that, it may have some effect; and I think it's a good thing for us to try it as we think about reopening.

On the risk of transmitting the virus indoors vs. outdoors. 

Outdoors is really a safe place to spend time, and especially since all of us have been so cooped up and the weather is getting nice. [Outdoors is] a large space and the efficiency of how the virus transmits is dependent on the size of the space — the air circulation. And there's sunlight outside that provides some UV that might help kill the virus. So even if the virus particles are in the air, they'll diffuse more in open spaces. It's still important to avoid crowded events in public areas just like it would be inside, but it's much easier to do that social distancing and avoid small, cramped spaces with little air circulation when you're outside. So I do think that it is safe — and probably safer — to spend some time outdoors.

On whether runners and cyclists should be wearing face masks

You know, it may be hard for some people who are exercising to wear face masks. If you can, it probably will provide some of that protection. There have been some studies that show when people are coughing or breathing hard that maybe you can push virus a little further. But we don't know how that equates to transmission.

So again: it's a large, open space and whatever virus is out there will probably diffuse further and be less likely to transmit. But we just don't know. I mean, the only study that I think has been making the rounds was only a a simulation and not done with real people; just looking at how particles transmit in a wind tunnel.

I think as long as you're trying to keep back from each other and try to keep social distancing as much as you can when you're outside, you know, and have good restaurant etiquette — hand hygiene — that I think that should work. And I guess the other thing is to remember to stay home when you're sick. So if you're not feeling well, especially if you're coughing, you probably don't want to be out running with other people.

On how effective a face mask is at curbing transmission

I think the issue is that we don't know how a cloth mask works compared to a medical mask, which we do know the filtration properties of. But again ... most of the transmission is from large respiratory droplets, especially when we cough or sneeze; and so those tend to fall off after six feet. And I do think that wearing a cloth face covering will stop those from going as far ... So it definitely will protect others from me if I cough or sneeze.

What we don't know as well is how the air that I breathe in will be filtered. And that depends on the material and other factors. But I think if everyone is wearing a mask and trying to stand apart as much as they can, then there would be a reduction in virus. So I do think it will have some effect. It's just not 100% protective, so we want people to remember all of the other factors.

On how often we should clean our cloth face masks

I would say washing them once a day, you know, just to make sure that ... when you're putting it back on your face it hasn't gotten contaminated.

This article was originally published on May 06, 2020.

This segment aired on May 6, 2020.

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Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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