Health & safety

The official word on wearing face masks in public

From time to time, we’ll publish excerpts from our new book Beat the Coronavirus here as a public service. Today we’ll publish an excerpt from Chapter 5.

What’s the deal with face masks? Here’s where things stand now. Federal health officials are advising people to wear cloth face masks anytime they leave their house. It’s a recommendation, not a law or order. The guidance states:

CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

CDC also advises the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.1

For decades, face masks have been a standard part of daily life in many Asian countries during disease outbreaks, but it’s a ritual that’s foreign to most North Americans. That, too, is one of the jarring changes we’re seeing occur almost overnight as a result of the pandemic. The nightly news is now filled with pedestrians walking down city streets wearing masks, something we haven’t really seen in this country since the great flu pandemic of 1918-1919 (see Chapter 12 for more on the Spanish flu).

Here’s what you should know about face coverings.

fabric face masks
Fabric face masks from By George.

How to wear a face covering

What changed the CDC’s mind about face masks was the growing evidence that the coronavirus is being transmitted by asymptomatic individuals—people who have COVID-19 but don’t know it. A face covering, then, is chiefly intended to prevent carriers from infecting others by spreading virus-laden droplets through coughs, sneezes, or even conversation at close quarters. They should be worn when heading to the supermarket or in other community settings.

The CDC recommends that cloth face coverings:

• fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face

• be secured with ties or ear loops

• include multiple layers of fabric

• allow for breathing without restriction

• be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.


Here’s the guidance issued by the CDC in mid-April 2020 on wearing face masks in public.

Important things to know about face masks

Kinds of masks: Health officials advise people to wear a simple cloth mask. You can make a cloth face covering from household items and common materials at low cost. Stores are now carrying them, too. The CDC offers this basic tutorial on how to fashion a face mask:

Here are the best materials to use when making your own face mask. Graphic: informationisbeautiful

CNET has a few helpful articles about DIY masks and where to find masks online if you prefer:

How to make a face mask2

Where to buy a face mask3 or find a face mask pattern4

Bandannas: The CDC said bandannas are okay, but other health professionals say they’re not ideal because they gape at the chin and leave a space where droplets can be spewed out the sides or the bottom.5

Medical grade face masks: Surgical masks and N95 respirators are in short supply and should be reserved for health care workers and first responders.

Beards: While there’s no evidence that the coronavirus is more easily transmitted to men who wear beards or goatees, we should note that facial hair can impede the correct fitting of a face mask.

How to don a face mask: Before putting it on, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Dry your hands, then apply your face mask, making sure you can breathe okay. Wear your mask so it comes all the way up, close to the bridge of your nose, and all the way down beneath your chin. Tighten any loops or ties so it fits snugly around your face without gaps.

Don’t fidget with your mask after it’s on your face. Never touch your face when wearing your mask—it’s tempting to keep adjusting the fit, but remember that your hands are transmission vectors for germs and when you touch your face you’re at risk of infecting yourself.

• Careful mask removal is critical: Before you start walking around wearing cotton masks, you should understand that the virus is readily spread when you remove personal protective equipment such as a cloth mask.  Be careful when removing your mask. When you remove it, don’t touch the exterior (forward-facing) part of the mask. Don’t touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, and immediately wash your hands thoroughly with hand sanitizer or soap and water.

Don’t pull the mask down around your neck. Don’t place it into your pocketbook or on top of a counter. It’s a good idea to have multiple masks on hand. After use, place them into a disposable paper bag or toss them into your washer and run them through the laundry on a regular basis. Running masks through the regular wash should suffice. Store your masks in a clean, dry place.

Children and disabled people: Don’t place a face covering on toddlers under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or someone who’s unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Don’t let down your guard: Everyday face masks don’t offer much protection for the wearer, so you still want to keep six feet away from others when you’re out in public. Don’t get a false sense of security just because you have a face covering.

If you’re sick: If you’re ill or coughing or sneezing, you need to wear a mask when going out in public. And if you have COVID-19 and are self-isolating at home (see Appendix C), you should wear a mask anytime a caregiver enters your room.

If you’re a caregiver: Also wear a mask if you’re taking care of a person known to have or suspected of having the coronavirus. Put it on whenever you enter the room of an isolated individual and wash it daily.

1 “Use of cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19,” CDC,

2 Katie Conner and Jessica Dolcourt. “How to make a coronavirus face mask or covering at home using cloth or a bandanna, CNET, April 9, 2020,

3 Katie Conner. “Here’s where you can buy face masks and cloth coverings online,” CNET, April 8, 2020,

4 Katie Conner and Jessica Dolcourt. “Homemade coronavirus face masks and coverings: Here’s what you need to know,” CNET, April 30, 2020

5 Hilary Potkewitz. “What to put in a Covid-19 emergency home-care kit,” Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2020,

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