CDC guidelines have recently been updated to recommend “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) to help reduce the spread of the virus from spreading between people interacting in close proximity.” (Guidelines are rapidly evolving.) Before those updates, some state governments, like those in California and Pennsylvania, began suggesting that everyone wear cloth face coverings when they go out in public for essential activities in order to help prevent those that are asymptomatic from spreading the disease. And, the WHO has more resources on how to properly use masks.
“Really, what these announcements should mean to athletes, and to everyone, is that the situation we are in is very serious. And that we all need to consider the consequences of our individual actions on the community around us,” Ferrari says.
For example, the Pennsylvania guidelines state that masks “should not be worn damp or when wet from spit or mucus,” and in a press conference on April 3, Rachel Levine, M.D., Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, suggested that cloth face coverings may not be necessary when out for solo exercise if you will be in a place you won’t encounter anyone else. There is no advantage to wearing a face covering if you are not going to be near people at all, explains Ferrari.
“And that’s what we should be striving for, keeping big distances,” Ferrari says. “Face coverings do two possible things—they contain spread from the ill and prevent inhalation in the healthy. The degree to which they achieve these things is debated, but one thing is not: they are only really effective if used properly. And most people are not trained to use masks properly. Even taking a mask on and off incorrectly can be risky and increase your hand-to-mouth exposure.”
Wearing a Buff or other moisture-wicking face covering while riding as well as maintaining at least a six-foot distance from others may help cut down on droplets being spread to others due to heavy breathing if you’re in an area where you may encounter others, Nieman says.
“The purpose of the mask is not to protect you, but to protect other people from you,” Labus says. “If that is the goal, going out solo and avoiding other people altogether is the best thing you can do.”
This means avoiding crowded areas, even if you get to your regular route and there are other people there, you should find a different place to go for the safety of everyone.
“This virus is highly contagious and transmissible, and it appears we cannot be too careful,” Nieman says.
However, wearing a cloth face covering is not a substitute for hand washing, physical distancing, or remaining at home when ill. Check your local government recommendations for guidance. (You can find a directory of state health departments here.)