If you're vaccinated and don't have underlying health conditions, experts say it's pretty safe to forego masks outdoors. Key TakeawaysAlthough mandates and recommendations for wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have changed over the past several months, it is still considered safe to go maskless at crowded outdoor events. People who are seriously
COVID-19 mask mandates and recommendations seem to be changing often these days.
But one area of masking has remained steadfast for some time. Many people have ditched masking outdoors, even at crowded outdoor events like football games, concerts, or street festivals.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that generally, people don’t need to mask when outdoors—with a few exceptions.
The agency recommends that people who aren’t fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor places or during activities where they’ll be in close contact with other people. For fully vaccinated people, masking might be a good idea in crowded outdoor places, especially if they or someone in their household is immunocompromised.
The CDC also notes that people should keep track of the levels of COVID-19 infections in their communities, with advice on what to do if infection levels are low, medium, or high. People who are not at high risk of infection are advised to wear a mask in indoor public spaces if community levels are high. If the community is at a medium level of infection, people who are at high risk are advised to talk with their healthcare provider about masking indoors.
But the agency emphasizes that anyone may choose to mask at any time and that masking is advisable for anyone with symptoms, a positive test result, or exposure to someone infected with COVID-19.
So why is masking not necessary outdoors? We can thank the atmosphere for a built-in filtration system, Aaron Glatt, MD, a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America and chairman of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau, told Verywell.
“I’ve been telling people for a long time that if you’re outdoors, you don’t need to wear masks,” he said.
The air outdoors isn’t comparable to well-ventilated indoor spaces.
“The amount of air outdoors is just tremendously greater than in even the best-ventilated room,” David Dowdy, MD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell. “There’s probably a risk of transmission from the people who are right next to you, who you might be talking with, or where your face might be just a couple of feet away from someone else. But not beyond that.”
Overall, most outdoor situations won't pose a high COVID-19 risk.
“Obviously, if somebody’s right next to you, theoretically, and sneezing on you or coughing on you for a long period of time even outdoors there is a risk, but in general the outdoors isn’t a very high-risk situation,” Glatt noted. Coughing and sneezing create an aerosol that can include viruses.
Because there is such a large volume of air at an outdoor event, the risk of airborne spread for the average person is significantly reduced, Dowdy said. “There may be some limited transmission from one person to the people that are right next to them for long periods of time, but it’s probably not going to cause the same large outbreaks that you can see in indoor events where one person can easily infect 50 or 100 people,” Dowdy added.
If you are standing shoulder to shoulder with other people at a street festival or other crowded outdoor event, you aren’t that close for that long, he said. “Even if you’re shoulder to shoulder for a few minutes, it’s probably not a huge risk of transmission there, although not zero,” he added.
There is little actual research that gives a more exact idea of what the risk of infection is from the virus while outside, Glatt said. But for most, it shouldn’t be a huge risk.
“For most people who are vaccinated and have no major underlying immunocompromised situation, I think those types of risks are reasonable risks for a person to take,” Glatt added.
The risks of becoming infected at an outdoor event are higher for anyone who has an impaired immune system, such as transplant patients who take drugs to suppress the immune system and patients being treated for cancer or for autoimmune diseases.
Other risk factors for a severe COVID-19 infection include having diabetes, chronic lung disease, or heart disease. These are the people who are more likely to have a severe infection and who risk hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
“Those people in general should be a little bit more cautious in an outdoor venue,” Glatt said.
People should remember that the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 while outdoors is never zero, Dowdy pointed out.
“But I would much rather be outdoors with no mask on than indoors with a mask if you’re talking about the same level of contact,” he added.
Generally, the risk of COVID-19 transmission outdoors is low. If you are immunocompromised or have an underlying condition that puts you at greater risk of a severe COVID-19 infection, you may consider masking up in crowded outdoor events.
One year ago, Amy Price, DPhil, a senior research scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine and patient editor at The BMJ, wrote a commentary on mask-wearing in the journal. In her article, published just after she lost her husband to COVID-19, she discussed her reasoning for why she chose to wear a mask both indoors and out at that time.
Price’s personal masking habits have only changed slightly since then, she told Verywell. “I’m a little less cautious, but I still have my guard up,” she said.
If she is outdoors in a fairly isolated area, she does not wear a mask but does wear one in crowded outdoor places even though she is triple vaccinated and has had COVID-19. “The reason why is not because I’m afraid of getting COVID but that I have concerns there are many people that are vulnerable and cannot be vaccinated,” she added.
“Right now, we have a lull [in infection rates], but even at Stanford University cases are starting to increase,” Price said. “They’re minor because everyone has multiple vaccinations, but for that small percentage it is still death to them.” This is why she masks in outdoor settings when she is in a crowd.
Everyone makes their own choices on whether, when, and where to use a mask, Price pointed out.
“I would urge people not to be bound by fear but also to exercise awareness and caution, and if rates of transmission start to go up to watch that and not to hesitate to re-mask,” she said. “I think it’s important to be respectful of people that are wearing masks and people that aren’t.”
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.