How safe am I talking maskless outdoors during the pandemic?
October 6, 2020 6:31 PM   Subscribe

I know that talking to people six feet away without a mask reduces transmission risk, I’d just like to know how much. Is transmission 99% less likely? Totally minuscule? How about twelve feet? Any good data on this? Opinions of clinicians on the ground?

Context: driving to another city for business, want to talk to people at six feet, prefer to be maskless but also very much prefer not getting covid.
posted by insteadofapricots to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
This set of FAQs was written by a number of well known scientists and engineers, including 3 members of the COVID-19 WHO expert group.

It's accessibly written and goes into some detail about the transmission range.
posted by jeremias at 6:46 PM on October 6, 2020 [11 favorites]


My understanding is that one should stay six feet away _with_ a mask.
posted by amtho at 7:29 PM on October 6, 2020 [17 favorites]


Section 3 of that FAQ has your answer OP.
tldr: 6 feet is no guarantee. The farther away you are the lower the risk BUT it also depends on ventilation.
posted by storybored at 7:31 PM on October 6, 2020 [2 favorites]




Mask + distancing is like airbag + seatbelt. They both help on their own but you really don't want to go without either. Also, masking is the more important of the two since the six feet thing is more of a rule of thumb that people are likely to follow. Real-world aerosols carry farther and linger longer, even outdoors; six feet of distancing reduces the risk but hardly eliminates it, especially without a mask. (Also consider that trying to converse with somebody a dozen+ feet away requires raising your voice somewhat and thus projecting more particles in both directions).
posted by Rhaomi at 7:49 PM on October 6, 2020 [10 favorites]


I would suggest microCOVID.org. I think it does a really great job of both estimating your risk from a given interaction, and in helping you put that risk into context.

I would emphasize that being outdoors, based on everything we know, makes a very large difference.
posted by kickingtheground at 7:50 PM on October 6, 2020 [9 favorites]


CDC guidance from yesterday "indicates that most infections are spread through close contact, not airborne transmission" but that "Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 can occur under special circumstances."
These transmission events appear uncommon and have typically involved the presence of an infectious person producing respiratory droplets for an extended time (>30 minutes to multiple hours) in an enclosed space. Enough virus was present in the space to cause infections in people who were more than 6 feet away or who passed through that space soon after the infectious person had left. Circumstances under which airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 appears to have occurred include:
  • Enclosed spaces within which an infectious person either exposed susceptible people at the same time or to which susceptible people were exposed shortly after the infectious person had left the space.
  • Prolonged exposure to respiratory particles, often generated with expiratory exertion (e.g., shouting, singing, exercising) that increased the concentration of suspended respiratory droplets in the air space.
  • Inadequate ventilation or air handling that allowed a build-up of suspended small respiratory droplets and particles.
Six feet isn't a magical number that the virus agreed to abide by.
posted by JackBurden at 8:12 PM on October 6, 2020 [4 favorites]


The recent Rose Garden event also had an indoor reception.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:00 PM on October 6, 2020 [24 favorites]


There is no data to give a quantitative answer.

To have data we'd need to understand the risk curve for exposure to virions and what a random population of infected but asymptomatic people are exhaling, just for starters. We don't have that and we're light years away from getting it. Even if we had it, it'd then be modified by things like wind direction, type of mask and fit, baseline infection rates, risk of a sneeze or cough, etc.

We know outside exposure isn't a major source of infection but that it is possible. So all the FAQs and comments are going to be that wearing a mask is better than not and being far away is better than not.

If you are meeting business people--that is, people from different geographic areas who each represent and independent exposure risk (ie, they don't live or pod together) and talking for a prolonged period and these are other people who have travelled, I personally would want to wear a mask and I'd also expect anyone talking to me to wear a mask and I would get prickly if they didn't or kept taking it off. It's not just your risk when you make your decision. (I personally would be OK with intermittent removal of a mask to eat a few chips or drink.)

To be fair, the flip side is that states / counties that have allowed outdoor non-crowded dining don't seem to have had an explosion in cases. The downside of wearing a mask is a lot lower than the downside of not wearing one, but it's not extremely risky.
posted by mark k at 11:17 PM on October 6, 2020 [4 favorites]


"Prefer to be maskless but also very much prefer not getting covid"

Your mask would protect the person you're talking to from any virus you might be carrying. It might offer some protection to you, but your protection would mostly come from masks that other people would wear.

In your place I'd try to meet these people outdoors if at all possible - if you did that, and stayed more than 6 feet away, I'd be comfortable meeting you without masks. Indoors, there's greater transmission risks - these are reduced with distancing, but not eliminated, so if I were meeting you I'd prefer that everyone be masked. YMMV but it's not just your risk, so perhaps have a conversation about this in advance if that's possible.
posted by altolinguistic at 2:30 AM on October 7, 2020


Just noticed that in your heading (but not in the rest of your question) you do say you'll be outdoors. I'd be comfortable meeting you without a mask, but your interlocutors may vary.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:11 AM on October 7, 2020


We would mostly prefer to be maskless, however, it's not to keep you from getting sick, it's to prevent the person you're in close quarters with from getting sick. Please don't make them feel ill at ease by not wearing a mask. If I were the person you were talking to, I would say something about you not wearing a mask, and I would think less of you for not giving a shit about my well being.
posted by kellyblah at 4:54 AM on October 7, 2020 [4 favorites]


There's also a social component to wearing a mask. As an immunocompromised person who has not seen another human being in person in over 200 days, it makes me feel even more alone and invisible when I see people without masks on. Even if they are outdoors. Right now, a lot of people like me are living in a world where a lot of people simply do not care if we just fuck off and die. Heck, they may even prefer it.

You don't and can't know about the extended networks of these people that you are meeting. (Do any of them have immunocompromised parents they care for? Or kids with asthma? Or a spouse with cancer?) And you don't know what kind of message you might be sending to them about how much you care about them as fellow humans in the world if you don't wear a mask. Wearing a mask shows that you care about other people's health more than you care about your own comfort. It signals to people like me that some of us still have a social contract with one another. Please just wear the mask. Showing care for others is in short supply these days.
posted by k8lin at 5:05 AM on October 7, 2020 [38 favorites]


k8lin's comment reminds me: you mentioned traveling. It's possible you're going somewhere that has a mask mandate for people in public. Not every jurisdiction enforces this actively, but even in those that don't you'll get death glares from plenty of people (including me!) for flouting the law. It's also pretty highly correlated with "Trump supporter" to a lot of folks. Something to keep in mind since you're traveling for business.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:30 AM on October 7, 2020


Context: driving to another city for business, want to talk to people at six feet, prefer to be maskless but also very much prefer not getting covid.

I still personally feel that would be very safe - we may not have the studies yet, but if COVID was as transmittable as some suggest, then a huge percent of the population would have already gotten it. I've seen studies that say about 10% of the US has had it. That's still low.

Here's a report that says only 16% of family members of an infected patient get it: That involves days of direct contact and can include some care for infected patients.

COVID household study That's not low, but it's not huge either.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:19 AM on October 7, 2020


It's important to think about risk clearly. Low-ish risk doesn't mean that if you get sick, you only get a low amount of sickness. It might mean that in a population of 100 only a few people will get sick, but they will -- you would -- get _all the way sick_. Either you're totally fine, or you're really, really sick, missing weeks of work, potentially making other people really, really sick, and maybe ending up in the hospital.
posted by amtho at 10:31 AM on October 7, 2020


I do not have any additional data to add on risk of transmission, and I am sooo not a doctor, but I can share what the clinicians I know were ok with. I went to a couple of outdoor happy hours over the summer a small group of 5 people (clinicians* and others working in infectious disease research, including COVID). So, not COVID deniers. The group discussed our various risk levels and tolerance beforehand, as well as plans to not gather in any other groups that week (to keep non-household contact counts within numbers recommended by our local health department), and decided we were comfortable sitting outdoors without masks, more than 6' apart but probably within 12'. We brought our own drinks. The weather is turning now but I would do it again. The key to relative comfort was everyone saying what they were comfortable with, agreeing on a plan, and sticking to the plan.

*The clinicians were not seeing patients.
posted by esoterrica at 11:00 AM on October 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


It's important to think about risk clearly. Low-ish risk doesn't mean that if you get sick, you only get a low amount of sickness. It might mean that in a population of 100 only a few people will get sick, but they will -- you would -- get _all the way sick_. Either you're totally fine, or you're really, really sick, missing weeks of work, potentially making other people really, really sick, and maybe ending up in the hospital.

I don't think that is true. Low risk means a small number of people will get sick from COVID, but the amount they get sick is still unknown. One of the 2 could very well die from it.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:23 AM on October 7, 2020


Anecdata point: I have stopped socializing/offering to socialize with all friends who refuse to wear a mask outside and pressure/mock the idea that masks outside are needed. If you wanted to talk to me in a professional capacity, and I did't know you well/didn't know where you'd been, no mask would be a dealbreaker. No not masking might be safe, healthwise, but it's not a good business practice at the moment unless you're talking to magahats.
posted by TwoStride at 11:45 AM on October 7, 2020 [1 favorite]


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