TL:DR – short answer is yes.
The Three Types of Masks
Broadly speaking, there are three types of masks that are relevant to the pandemic: N95, Surgical and DIY/Homemade Cloth. Here’s a summary of the main purpose of each type of mask:
While surgical masks and homemade cloth masks may provide some limited protection to the wearer, their primary effectiveness is to protect other people. If you have the virus, coughing, sneezing and even breathing can spread the virus. The use of a mask will greatly limit the spread of the virus if those who are infected wear them. Update: a study out of Hong Kong has found that widespread mask-wearing limits virus transmission by 75%.
Remember: the virus can be spread by an infected person who is not yet symptomatic or is asymptomatic. You may be a spreader of the virus and not know it.
Why Wearing A Mask Is A Good Idea
The reason to wear a mask isn’t so much to protect the wearer because wearing a mask that isn’t an N95 mask has limited ability to stop us from breathing in the virus. Rather, mask-wearing is a good idea because it is effective at limiting the spread of the virus to others by those who are unknowingly infected. (Note that countries, mostly in Asia, that have been best at limiting the spread engage in widespread mask-wearing.) The CDC and the FDA both recommend wearing a mask when in public.
An analogy: Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine, recently turned 68 and listed out “68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice.” One of them is that “promptness is a sign of respect.” Being late to meet someone sends the message “I don’t care about you.” Being on time signals that you care about the other person and value their time.
The same is true of wearing a mask: it shows that you care for others and value their health. You don’t want to get them sick if you unwittingly have the virus. It signals that you take the pandemic seriously and are doing your part to limit the spread. Wearing or not wearing a mask should not be a sign of political ideology.
As our economy reopens and we head back to work and school a good rule of thumb suggested by experts about how to behave is to assume that YOU have the virus and can spread it to everyone you come in contact with. If everyone acts in such a fashion we’ll all be better off.
Note that “wearing a mask in public” doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a mask every time you leave your house. Being outside and more than six feet from others is a situation where there is a very low risk of spread. Here’s a great article on how the virus spreads and how the risk is extremely low outside.
In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a video that has gone viral of a Costco manager dealing with a customer who refuses to wear a mask: