We should all be wearing masks

Face coverings can help reduce risk

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending everyone wear a face covering, particularly in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. CommonWealth recently reported on the “to mask or not to mask” controversy. The following commentary originally appeared on the website of Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont.


WE SHOULD all be wearing improvised cloth masks when we go out in public places, to reduce our risk of catching COVID-19 and our risk of transmitting COVID-19.

Wearing an improvised mask is not an alternative to staying six feet away from other people. It just helps further reduce risk.

It is now officially recognized that we can spread the virus when we don’t know we have it, either because we have no symptoms yet or because our symptoms are too mild to pay attention to. We all have the responsibility to help others by reducing the spread.

Any mask, even a well-wrapped T-shirt, makes it easier for us to follow the standard advice to “avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.“ Following that advice makes us less likely to transfer the virus from our hands to a point that the virus can actually enter our body. It also makes us less likely to put the virus on our hands and transfer it to surfaces for others to pick up. Eyes are not usually covered by a mask, but a mask can help us remember not to rub our eyes.

Any mask can also reduce the extent to which we spread droplets of saliva and mucus when we speak enthusiastically, clear our throats, or cough or sneeze.

At the beginning of the epidemic, the official advice was contrary: the general public should not be wearing masks. The underlying motivation for that order was clear: People working on the front lines of the battle against the virus are at vastly greater risk than the general public and have a vastly greater need for professional grade personal protective equipment (“PPE”). Only a properly-applied professional-grade mask can fully protect a person from fine particles containing virus that could be in the air near an infected person.

Right now there is a world-wide shortage of PPE that is putting health care workers at acute personal risk. If the general public were advised to use PPE, then affluent people who go out only to shop would stock up on scarce professional-grade PPE for their own self care. This would make it harder to supply the necessary PPE for doctors, nurses, EMTs, and others who are in constant close contact with very sick people.

Massachusetts’ leaders have put procurement of PPE for health care workers at the very top of their daily priority list and we are making progress. Gov. Charlie Baker scored a huge breakthrough working with the Kraft family to bring 1 million masks from China. Partners Healthcare acquired a machine that can recycle 80,000 masks per day.

I am hopeful that as the surge of sick patients washes into the hospitals, our front-line workers will have the equipment they need, but we are nowhere close to having professional grade equipment for all 7 million Massachusetts citizens. It would be a safety improvement for everyone on the street to be wearing professional grade masks. Maybe in a few months, as American manufacturing ramps up, we can get to that place: If you think about the volume of disposable food packaging we use, reasonable quality masks for everyone is not out of reach in the future.

For now, the Centers for Disease Control is saying that we should all be doing our part by wearing what we have or can make at home: a ski mask or scarf, a cut up T-shirt, the old dust masks we may have from our last home improvement project, or, if we have the skills, a nicer mask made from any of the many patterns popping up on the internet now.

Personally, my biggest reluctance to wear a mask is that it could send a message that I am afraid of or unwelcoming towards other people. But if more people start wearing masks, my hope is that we can start to hear a different message from a mask: I care enough about you to take the risk of looking silly.

William Brownsberger is the state senator from Belmont.