The Case for Going Maskless Outdoors

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S1: Hey, everyone, it’s Mary Today Show has just the tiniest pinch of foul language, you’ve been warned. I’m wondering if you and I can start out by talking about what your Twitter mentions look like right now. Oh, my

S2: God.

S1: Shannon Pollice writes about science here at Slate.

S2: They were really, really bad after the piece published. I’m very addicted to Twitter anyway. And every time I opened up the app, it would just be like dozens and dozens of new notifications, a lot of them telling me to, like, eat, poop and die. And I had to give my phone to Matt, my boyfriend, for a while. I was like, you can’t I can’t be near this. It’s causing me.

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S1: What are people so upset with you about?

S2: I suggested it might be maybe perhaps time for us as a collective group to consider that we don’t need to mask all the time outside.

S1: You are being so careful.

S2: Yes.

S1: Shannon’s article is titled It’s About Time for us to stop wearing masks outside and plenty of public health experts and even a writer at the stodgy New England Journal of Medicine weighed in to say Shannon was right here. That didn’t stop the Twitter warfare from escalating.

S2: I don’t want people to feel scared. I want to be part of, you know, the group neighborhood effort to combat covid. I also think that there’s one thing that we’ve all agreed to do and that also the government has agreed to help us enforce. I don’t it doesn’t make scientific sense.

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S1: Yeah. I mean, one person who pushed back on you online said that your piece, it was like suggesting it’s time to put on a seatbelt when you think a car crash is about to happen. But I get the sense that you disagree with that analysis.

S2: I strongly disagree with that analysis. Walking down the sidewalk with a mask just in case you come within six feet of someone or come within six feet of someone and need to stop and have a long conversation. That’s like sitting in your car, parked in the driveway with a seatbelt just in case a car comes out of nowhere and slams it to.

S1: Today on the show, we fought over whether to wear masks in the first place, so I guess it only makes sense that now we’re fighting over when and how to take them off Shannons on the side of setting your face free, at least some of the time. We’ll talk about why. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. I want to be really clear about what your article was advocating for, your advocating for some states to potentially lift their miles requirements for people when they’re outdoors. So indoors, still important to be masked. And when I looked into it, I was I was pretty surprised by how many places still have outdoor mask mandates because they’re mandates that apply to public places. And most places outdoors are public places, I think was 26 states. There’s a lot of places in New York it means, you know, everywhere I go, because if I go running in the park, I’m pretty close to people all the time. You know, the rule is if you can’t maintain social distancing, you have to have a mask. And in the city, social distancing is just kind of a little impossible. So I wonder if you could just lay out exactly precisely what your argument is.

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S2: Yes, I’m going to talk about New York, because that’s where I live to in New York. In my opinion, you should be able to walk out your front door without a mask, you know, with a mask in your pocket, but not affixed to your face. You should not feel obligated to pull it up when you’re walking past people. And you should have it on hand in case you’re going to be in a crowd that’s stagnant. So people not moving in case you’re going to stop and talk to a friend. But otherwise, if you’re just going to be within six feet of people from moment to moment, briefly, scientifically, it’s not necessary to be wearing one. And I think when you say it’s not possible, a social distance in New York, I think that social distancing, we think of it as this thing. Like if I get within six feet of someone that’s not social distancing,

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S1: I think of it like an invisible hamster ball. Yes. Like I’m rolling around the streets and I need, like, the six feet on either end, right?

S2: Yes. And I do think that it’s a pretty good way to think about it, because you do want to try to keep your distance from other people. But I think the two things that are really important to consider in outdoor masking are the the time aspect of social distancing

S1: and like how long you’re exposed to someone else, how

S2: long you’re exposed to someone else. And so in New York, unless you’re at the park during, like, peak hours, you’re not going to be coming into contact into like about six feet hampster bubble of someone else for more than like a second or two. You’re going to be coming into contact with them really, really, really briefly. And the CDC defines close contact not just within six feet, but standing within six feet of someone for 15 minutes. And now that 15 minute, that’s not a magic line either. And some experts say, you know, we should consider making it shorter in some situations. But the point is that that’s a really long amount of time. So when we think about social distancing, we shouldn’t just be thinking about the six feet. We should be thinking about the time that we’re close to someone. And then also the ventilation situation. And when you’re outdoors, it’s all ventilation. It’s nothing except ventilation, but outdoors. Nothing that you breathe out is going to hang around in the air.

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S1: So can you lay out some of the science about how you came to believe ditching a mask outdoors was largely safe? Like I read that the risk of transmission is 19 times higher indoors than outdoors, which is massive.

S2: Yeah, that’s huge. So there have been a couple papers and reports. You know, there is one I think it was just a report in a paper in Ireland based on data from their health department over there saying that one percent of all of their cases occurred outdoors, which so I think that’s on the lower end. But that’s just like exceedingly low. There’s data from China in last year where like the only recorded case during a certain period of time. And the caveat here is they think this was during pretty strict lockdown. So people aren’t going outside as much in general. But the only case of outdoor transmission was when two people were having a face to face conversation for an extended period of time. There is another paper recently where I think that, you know, 19 times figure comes from where they said at the very, very, very most 10 percent of cases occur outdoors, but it’s probably lower than that. And also it those cases are happening in situations where you can point to a really clear risk. You can say people were gathering around a fire and sharing cabins and, you know, like

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S1: so spending a lot of time together, not just like passing each other on the street, but like sharing a campsite or something.

S2: Yeah. Where you’re like where it’s clear that like, ah, there’s like potential for like pretty close interaction here, the important caveat here is that if you did get covid from walking down the street and passing someone briefly, it would be very hard to report that on a form like I don’t even know how you would know that. That’s how you got it. You could say the only thing I’ve been doing is going outside and very briefly passing people on the street. But it does.

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S1: So we wouldn’t know necessarily we

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S2: wouldn’t necessarily know. It is impossible to say that you cannot get at that way. It is impossible to say that it does not happen. However, if it did happen in this instance where you’re passing someone on the sidewalk, if it did happen often, we would just expect all of those other numbers for outdoor transmission to be hired.

S1: One physician you spoke to compared the risk to the risk of getting struck by lightning, because if you’re passing someone on the street, you’d have to be inhaling and exhaling at exactly the right time. One of you would have to be asymptomatic because if you were symptomatic, you would probably be wearing a mask.

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S2: I just want to clarify that it was get struck by lightning and get hit by a car like at the same time. Yes. So he was saying because I had people on Twitter replying, saying, I know someone I’ve been struck who has been struck by lightning.

S1: And you’re like, but do you know someone who’s been struck by lightning and hit by a car?

S2: Yes. And I named him after he said that to me. I was like, I just want to get this straight. And I repeated his entire argument back to him just to make sure it wasn’t like this, that

S1: there is this argument that masking outdoors makes it more likely that people will wear masks indoors, like just because they’re already on your face, you’re going to keep them on when you go to the grocery store or the hardware store or wherever. Why do you not buy that?

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S2: I think that that argument assumes that people are idiots. I think that might have made some sense last spring when we were just all getting used to the concept of masking. But I just think that we’re smart enough to know the difference. And I think that you can make it a really strong social norm that you need to wear them in grocery stores or you got thrown out, I think. And I would hope that people would be more interested in masking consistently indoors, especially after they’re vaccinated. And we have to continue or we should continue to be careful around each other until we know that everyone’s vaccinated. I would hope that giving people nuanced, science based rules would make them more willing to ask when they should be asking instead of just saying you need to never take this off your face just in case you come into a situation when you need it. It’s kind of like saying we should always be wearing bike helmets just in case we are on a bike.

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S1: One more point of clarity, which is. I’m wondering if you’re advocating for folks to consider ditching masks outdoors, regardless of what’s happening in their communities, like I’m thinking about places like Michigan and Colorado where cases are rising. Do you think the rules should be different there?

S2: I do not feel qualified to make the rules for places where cases are surging. I think that one of the infectious disease doctors I spoke to had a really good suggestion, though her suggestion was counties should look at two factors. If they’re deciding to lift outdoor mask mandates, they should look at the vaccinations in the community. So how many people have received at least their first shot and the level of hospitalizations? I think that you could kind of have a middle ground argument where, OK, if hospitalisations get really high, we want people to be wearing masks all the time, in part just to signal that we’re going through this surge. Yeah, I think that makes some sense.

S1: After the break, why is it so hard to get rid of these mask mandates? Probably because of how these mandates got written in the first place. Can we go in the way back machine and talk about how these rules got put in place and in the first place, like I remember a year ago, lots of people were losing their minds about pictures of crowded beaches in Florida during spring break at the time. Why do you think politicians begin to think we need masks on everyone’s faces all the time, we just we got to lock this down?

S2: I think so. I think part of it is that if you remember a year ago, let’s see it. So the CDC first recommended masks on the faces of all Americans at the beginning of April. And that was a massive flip flop from where we were in the beginning of March, where you had health officials screaming that masks on civilian faces were not worthwhile and, you know, should be saved for doctors. So my sense in hindsight is that a lot of it just came out of trying to, like, pull this lever in the opposite direction of, like we said, no masks. Now we’re saying masks and we’re going with that. And it also, like a year ago, things were really confusing and they were changing rapidly. And it sort of made sense to just kind of go all in on one easy rule, which is like wear the fucking mask.

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S1: It was a course correction.

S2: It was a huge course correction. And yeah, it seems like that would have really been a difficult time to try to instill this nuance. And maybe back in April of twenty twenty, we did really need to see a lot of people wearing masks just to get used to the idea of it. But I mean, I’m being a little like I, I was right. I have a piece in Slate from last April saying stop yelling at runners for not wearing masks. So it’s not I’ve been on the like outdoor masks are overkill racket for a long time, but I can see in hindsight like why the Zella’s outdoor masking would would have made a lot of sense a year ago. And also on the data side of it, like I’ve been saying for a long time, as have a lot of people, that wearing masks in every single outdoor situation is overkill. We didn’t have as much data, though. And remember that we were we went through this whole whiplash on surfaces like whether we need to wash our hands and forks or groceries. And so I can see why a year ago you might say, well, yeah, but we just want to, like, really batten down the hatches as much as possible because we’re learning about this. We’re learning new things about this virus all the time. And it just makes sense to overkill for a little bit.

S1: You talk about people’s comfort level and how, you know, if it makes people feel comfortable to wear a mask, they absolutely should. And I think part of what makes that complicated when it comes to this decision is the fact that. People have been told to feel comfortable if they see other people masked, that other people being masked is what protects them, then being masked is what protects other people. Like I remember seeing little slogans like that a year ago. And so I think that’s where this gets tangled up a little bit, where it is about personal comfort. But my personal comfort is about someone else making a decision, not me.

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S2: He I think that’s a really good point. And I think that if if masking were just about my own personal comfort and safety, I would have stopped masking outdoors are really, really, really long time ago. The reason I wear when outdoor stall and the reason I’m pretty careful about pulling it off when I come close to other people is because it feels like it’s a choice that I’m not really making on behalf of myself. It’s a choice that I’m making on behalf of other people.

S1: OK, after writing this piece, I wonder if you are more or less likely to go outside on a walk with a mask on, because in one way you’ve made your point. And in the days since your piece came out, other publications have made the same point. Places like The Atlantic and The New Republic. You also got a ton of. Harsh feedback for what you had to say. So where does that leave you with your personal decision?

S2: I’m pretty careful about pulling it up on the sidewalk when I see people. It’s a. During my entire walk this morning, given that it’s both a mandate in New York and it is our social norm, when I’m walking around, I still pull it up when I’m running and I still pull it up.

S1: I think we’ve thought about the rules around covid primarily as protective and locking down. And now we’re in this position where maybe governments can be easing restrictions. And we haven’t really thought about that, like we haven’t thought about what it means to not just build all these rules around ourselves, but what it means to take them away and what it means to say this is what post pandemic life looks like. And I don’t know if public health officials are used to that, to taking away restrictions because we’re so used to putting things in place and then maybe not. Taking them away for a long time later,

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S2: yeah, we’re in a really weird period where things are getting better and they’re also not getting better. And, you know, I don’t see using outdoor masks, restrictions. Just as an acknowledgement that some things are getting better, it’s also we’ve been in this for a long time and we know how to make rules now that are really effective. And we maybe know how to peel back rules a little bit in ways where the data are really clearly showing us. We don’t we don’t need to have them. For me, it really feels like, especially with the masking thing, we’re all just like really tethered together in this group project to keep each other safe. And it’s nice and a lot of ways, but we’re going to know this is over, I’m going to know this is over when every single little decision I make like this isn’t tethered to the rest of my neighborhood all the time

S1: where you can get some individuality back.

S2: Yeah.

S1: Shannon, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you for having me, Mary. This was fun.

S1: Shannon Pollice is a senior editor here at Slate. After Shannon and I talked, Dr. Anthony Fauci showed up on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

S3: Let’s talk about mask. I mean, you’re seeing more and more talk about I know the CDC is looking at perhaps revising their guidance about wearing masks outdoors at this time. What’s your best guidance on that at this point? You know, I don’t want to get ahead of them, George, but I think it’s pretty common sense now that outdoor risk is really, really quite low, particularly. I mean, if you were a vaccinated person wearing wearing a mask outdoors, I mean, obviously the risk is miniscule. What I believe you’re going to be.

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S1: Fauci said he expects new guidelines from the CDC soon. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Mary Wilson, Danielle Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Davis Land. We are led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. And in case you’re wondering, I did get Shannon to admit to one thing she’ll miss about mask wearing.

S2: I like listening to music on my morning walks. And so this morning in the park, I was listening to Taylor Swift’s Fearless Taylor’s version. And you can you know,

S1: that is the one benefit. I love that I’m an aggressive little singer.

S2: Normalized Lip-Sync.

S1: Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.