Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, says that states may soon drop their outdoor mask-wearing mandates — and it makes sense.
“Outdoor infections are rare and occur when large groups gather in packed spaces, such as rallies,” Jha said in a tweet on Sunday.
“Outdoor mask mandates are likely to be lifted in upcoming weeks. Indoor masking should stay for a bit longer,” he said.
In an interview on CNN’s Inside Politics earlier Sunday, Jha said, “I think it’s pretty safe to be out and about walking around without a mask, especially in large parts of the country where infection numbers are under reasonable control.”
“Indoors, of course, is where most of the infections happen so that needs to remain for a while longer. But I think we really do have to look at outdoor activity and see it as largely a safe thing, unless you have congregations of large numbers of people together for long periods of time,” he said.
Jha’s comments come at a time of increasing discussion of the possible dropping of outdoor mask-wearing mandates. Governor Charlie Baker said last week that he had no immediate plans to change the state’s mask-wearing mandate.
Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also suggested in a blog item Monday in the Journal Watch section of the New England Journal of Medicine that it might be time to drop outdoor mask mandates, though he emphasized that indoor mask-wearing would still be critical.
“With COVID-19, the most intensely studied viral respiratory tract infection in over a century, it’s worth emphasizing that clear documentation of outdoor transmission has been a challenge — and it’s not for lack of trying,” Sax said. “In such rare cases, it’s often impossible to disentangle the indoor activities accompanying the outdoor events as contributing to the risk. Or the people were crowded together outside, facing each other and interacting. Or exercising together and breathing heavily.”
“Transmissions do not take place between solitary individuals going for a walk, transiently passing each other on the street, a hiking trail, or a jogging track. That biker who whizzes by without a mask poses no danger to us, at least from a respiratory virus perspective,” he said in the blog item, which was framed as an imaginary dialogue with his dog, Louie, on their morning walks.
He said the science indicates it’s dangerous to be in “crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, in particular with unmasked individuals talking, shouting, singing.” In those cases, people should “wear a well-fitted mask until case numbers are down and more people are vaccinated.”
On the other hand, the evidence indicates it’s safe to be “outdoors especially while distanced,” he said. And masks in that circumstance are only needed for “lengthy interactions with others at close distance.”
Israel, a world leader in vaccinations, announced Sunday it was dropping its outdoor mask mandate. Members of the White House coronavirus response team didn’t answer directly when asked at a news briefing Monday when it might be safe to drop outdoor mask-wearing mandates in the United States.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said on Monday the level of infection in Israel is now “extremely low” and the hope is that, with increasing vaccinations in the United States, US cases will get “lower and lower” making it “easier and easier to get back to some degree of normality.”
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “While we’re making extraordinary strides in the number of people vaccinated, we still have an extraordinary amount of disease out there. And so I think that interplay is when we really need to consider here. We know these vaccines work extraordinarily well ... However, they take some time to kick in, you know, somewhere in the two- to six-week mark. And so if we have a lot of circulating virus today, the vaccines will work, you know, in a month, but they may not work today. So we need to continue to keep the preventive measures up to prevent ongoing cases today.”
Walensky said at the Monday briefing that the country is in a “complicated stage” as cases, deaths, and hospitalizations have increased in the past week while vaccinations continue to ramp up.
Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.