Two Galveston County cities this week enacted rules requiring businesses to mandate masks for their customers and employees, a move that’s stoked debate about whether masks work.
But despite early confusion, health experts agree people should wear masks in places where they can’t keep at least 6 feet apart to protect others from potential infection by the coronavirus.
Galveston and Dickinson implemented rules this week mandating businesses to require masks for customers and employees. Galveston’s order became effective Tuesday, while Dickinson customers will need to mask up starting Sunday.
Masks do help prevent spread of the coronavirus, said Dr. Philip Keiser, the top health official for the Galveston County Health District.
“The reason why we’re asking the public to wear masks isn’t because the mask is going to protect them, it’s going to protect the people around me,” Keiser said.
There’s much lingering confusion on masks because there were mixed messages, Keiser said.
Just how effective masks can be are still in question for some, like Galveston resident Brett Von Blon.
“I’m just kind of wishy-washy on them,” Von Blon said.
Von Blon always wears a mask when he’s asked to or when he’s around a crowd, though he generally avoids crowds now, he said.
If he’s out in the open air, he won’t wear one, he said.
“I just don’t know how effective they are, but I don’t know that they’re not,” Von Blon said.
Galveston resident Lorraine Manuel also wears masks if shops require them and thinks they’re a good idea in close proximity, but she’d rather practice social distancing inside businesses, she said.
“I just stand back and wait,” Manuel said. “It’s personal responsibility to not crowd and do that.”
Manuel doesn’t like the idea of requiring stores to mandate masks because she thinks it will hurt business, she said.
There are different kinds of masks, said Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer for the University of Texas System.
Health care workers use N95 masks, which have to be sealed to a person’s face, he said.
“Those type of masks protect you from anything,” Lakey said. “They need to be reserved for the hospitals.”
The push for widespread use of face coverings came when health care workers realized people could be shedding the virus without symptoms, Lakey said.
The virus is spread through respiratory droplets, which masks keep from flying out toward other people, Lakey said.
“The primary role of these masks is to protect other people from getting infected from the respiratory droplets,” Lakey said.
Although people should wash their masks, they shouldn’t worry about catching the virus from a mask, Lakey said.
“That’s not going to be the major way this is transmitted,” Lakey said.
Masks probably offer some level of protection to the wearer, but the point is protect others, said Dr. Richard Lampe, professor of pediatric infectious disease at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
“The big thing is the asymptomatic carriers,” Lampe said, referring to people who are infected but have no symptoms of illness. “It prevents them from spreading it.”
But people have to wear the mask correctly and put it over their nose and mouth, he said.
There’s not a great deal of data or studies evaluating the cloth masks that people have been using, but they’re going to be better than nothing, said Dr. Jason McKnight, a family medicine physician at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine.
McKnight wears a surgical mask at work, but he wears a cloth mask at the grocery store, he said.
Masks have an added benefit of preventing people from touching their faces, McKnight said.
The only people who shouldn’t wear masks are small children — who breathe differently than adults — or people who can’t remove their masks by themselves, which can cause safety issues, McKnight said.
People who have such severe respiratory issues that they can’t wear a mask, should probably stay at home, he said.
“You probably should not be leaving your house to begin with,” McKnight said.
It’s usually not worth it for children to wear masks because it can be a health concern to the child and rates of spread from children are low, Lampe said.
Keiser agrees with rules requiring businesses to mandate masks for customers and employees, like those enacted by Galveston and Dickinson, he said.
“If every single one of them was wearing a mask, the chance of spread from contact was very very low,” Keiser said.
When it comes to the outdoors, when to where a mask depends on the situation, Keiser said.
“When I ride my bike, I don’t wear a mask,” Keiser said.
If people can isolate themselves, it’s all right to forgo the mask, but if they’re going to be in any kind of crowd, they should wear a mask, he said.
Although it’d be great if mask wearing could cut out transmission of the virus, the real point is to slow down the spread, McKnight said.
“The ultimate goal would be to eliminate spread, but the more realistic goal is that you slow and minimize transmission,” McKnight said.