So, Should You Wear a Mask in Public?

by | May 21, 2020


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:


  1. yes — but remember — for much of Jan we were obsessed with impeachment. In Feb and early March we were told there was limited risk of transmission and then not to wear masks.
    And less you immediately blame the current administration — in late Feb I was at a meeting at the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in DC attended by leading scientists working at high levels of science policy — no social distancing, no masks. Many of my left-leaning colleagues were scoffing at fears of a pandemic as a manifestation of conservative xenophobia. All over DC the hotels and restaurants were packed.
    The divisiveness that continues to dominate the conversation in our country – hurts us deeply because everything, literally everything, becomes a political football. And any one thing always seems to have to become about some other thing. We cannot work together for success because one 1/2 or the other always wants the other 1/2 to fail – and to fail horribly. Taiwan is a much more homogeneous country with stronger universal social norms. Don’t get me wrong – the US was caught flat- footed. Partially because it all had to become a draconian tussle over shut-downs — all along we really just needed to do the short list of things I mentioned in a prior post (and maybe rebuild a stronger public health infrastructure resting on a foundation of local resilience). But the powers that be decided, once again, that no crisis should not be wasted. The US is always allowing ourselves to be distracted and we have lost the ability to have a common purpose. Just my 2 cents. Thanks

    • Beautifully put, on several dimensions.

  2. Check Taiwan; 24,000,000 people. All masks, social distance and no group of 10 or more………..first case same day as USA , we had lock-down they DID NOT, and today we have 100,000 dead they have…….less than 10……..yes, check it out less than 10.

  3. It is unfortunate that like so much of life these days — wearing or not wearing a mask has become a proxy for any number of things including political ideology. And of course, magical thinking; mask as talisman In reality — the basic public health rules are pretty well understood, not that difficult, and are good practices anyway – especially during cold and flu season:
    1. maintain social distancing
    2. wash your hands
    3. stay home when you are sick
    4. wear a mask in public to protect others (meaning we are reciprocally protecting one another) when it may not be possible to social distance.
    5. take responsibility for your own behavior – be considerate and courteous
    I have seen people driving in their cars all alone – wearing masks as a badge of moral honor – glaring at anyone not wearing a mask. We have to resist the urge to become self-righteous COVID scolds. Similarly – we should resist the urge to be a COVID-jerk.

    • Well said! I also have seen people jogging, out walking or even riding their bikes wearing masks. There must be some misunderstanding about what the masks are doing for them?

      • I do a lot of biking in the hills and I do not wear a mask but I have considered having one around my neck for when I pass other bikers. Sport activities can potentially shed a lot of virus and it time it may be worthwhile positioning yourself for safety. Here is a good simulation showing droplet distribution for runners for instance.
        Someone above mentioned how later we will learn that something is not necessary. This may be true, I would suggest to be careful until the studies are peer reviewed before risking my life on something that has not been carefully researched

  4. @Eric – the diameter of the virus is ~300 nm so it may diffuse in indoor environments covering distances up to about 10 m from the emission source. Our breath represents a kind of aerosol transmission.

    Wearing a mask while indoors in public spaces will help reduce infection rates.


  5. I have to disagree. If the main policy is social distancing, and social distancing is maintained, masks for either party are irrelevant or at least basis point type risk. Inside or outside.

    In a couple months, it will come out that this is the truth, just like “the virus doesn’t really survive on surfaces” is now the new truth. Two months ago it was life or death to wipe off any item that came in from the outside.

    In six months it will be known that the statistics around this virus are not at all alarming, and people will go back to making choices based on overall level of “risk”, just like we have done with the flu. Compare and contrast the data from the diamond princess cruise ship and the naval aircraft carrier. You’ll see what I mean


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