Wearing Masks in Public: What You Need to Know

Lorena Zeruche, who owns Loló, a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, wears a bandana on her face on April, 1, 2020 as she prepares for another day of takeout-only service.  (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

April 17, 6:18 p.m.

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This week, a growing number of Bay Area counties announced orders requiring residents and workers to wear face coverings while in essential businesses like grocery stores and medical offices, and on public transit, as part of an increasingly aggressive set of local measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

San Francisco, Alameda, Marin and Contra Costa counties all announced face-mask requirements on Friday, and will begin enforcing the orders on Wednesday, April 22. San Mateo officials indicated they will soon follow suit.  Sonoma County, which announced its order on Monday, began enforcement on Friday. Los Angeles County also began requiring face coverings this week.

Under the county orders, face coverings include any fabric that fully covers the nose and mouth and fits securely, be that a bandanna, scarf, neck gaiter or homemade cotton mask. Masks are generally not required while exercising or traveling in a car. And, in most counties, children 12 and under are excluded from having to wear them.

Officials are also encouraging residents to avoid purchasing N95s or surgical masks, which are in short supply and should be reserved for frontline health care workers.

The move comes amid a growing body of scientific research that suggests covering your face with fabric is an effective tool in helping to stop the spread of the virus, which is now understood to be highly contagious days before any symptoms appear, and for people who remain asymptomatic.

And on Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested the possibility of a statewide face mask order that would require all Californians to cover their faces in public areas. During his daily briefing, Newsom — who was not wearing a face mask himself —  said he was "encouraged by work being done at the local level and all throughout the state of California."

But only until recently have officials fully gotten behind the push to use masks.

After a prolonged of debate and lots of  wavering, the state of California and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early April released new guidelines suggesting that the public should wear some kind of face covering when they leave their houses to conduct essential jobs or tasks.

And on Friday, April 3, President Trump said his administration was now recommending that Americans use "non-medical cloth" face coverings, although he stressed that doing so was voluntary and that he had no intention of wearing one himself.

"I don't think I'm going to be doing it," he said, "Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don't see it."

In an early April press release, Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, noted that although face coverings are not a substitute for good hygiene practices, they may be helpful in keeping you — and those around you — safe.

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"Wearing a cloth face covering could provide some additional benefit by acting as a reminder for other people to keep their distance, and it could help reduce the spread of infectious particles from those who could be infected but don’t have symptoms," said Angell.

In other words, wearing something over your mouth and nose can't hurt — and might even help.

The reversal follows the recent discovery that, contrary to earlier assumptions, those infected with the coronavirus can still spread it even when they don’t show any symptoms. "This helps explain how rapidly this virus continues to spread across the country," Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, told NPR earlier this month.

And while federal, state and local officials say masks can certainly help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, they stress that wearing them should absolutely not replace ongoing hygiene protocols.

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“Face coverings could provide some additional protection against COVID-19, but Californians should not have a false sense of security if they choose to wear them. Make sure you’re also staying six feet away from other people if you have to leave your home to get groceries or prescriptions,” state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a press release.

State officials recommend wearing cloth coverings, which can be made of a variety of materials including cotton, silk or linen. The primary reason, they emphasize, is to "reduce the release of infectious particles into the air when someone speaks, coughs or sneezes, including someone who has COVID-19 but has yet to show any symptoms."

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Health officials recommend you follow these basic steps when wearing a face mask:

  • Make sure it completely covers your mouth and nose.
  • Once you put it on, leave the damn thing alone! Try not to adjust it.
  • Wash it very frequently.
  • Continue with the social distancing (staying at least 6 feet away from other people) and good hygiene practices (washing your hands thoroughly and often).
  • Discard the covering if it is damaged, stretched out or no longer fits over your entire mouth and nose.

Check out this CDC guide for more on how to properly wear face coverings, and instructions for making your own.

Federal and local officials, are also still asking the public to reserve N95 or surgical masks — considered "critical supplies" — for the thousands of frontline health care workers who urgently need them.