Although I wear a face mask when cycling, I’m not sure why. There are two rationales for wearing a face mask: so the user doesn’t get infected, and/or so others don’t get infected by the user. Medical grade face masks are the only ones designed with preventing infection. Some N95 masks have exhalation valves to make them more comfortable. These allow one’s breath to be released from the mask easily since the original purpose of the N95 is to prevent the user from being infected, whose breath is presumptively not the vector for infection; these are obviously useless for protecting others from the user, ie. for ‘source’ control. Since most of us are not able to get medical grade face masks in order to spare the limited number for front line workers who need them, we are left with less protective non-medical grade masks and ad hoc face coverings. The figures I’ve seen are that single layer face coverings block about 17-20% of infectious particles. (Presumably N95 masks block about 93-95%.) Still that’s 17% protection versus nothing at all.
Using a mask to prevent infecting others: that’s an interesting turn on motivating compliance because normally you motivate people to do something by showing them how they benefit from it, not how it benefits others. Why should I wear a mask if it is primarily to protect others but does little good for me? My motivation to use one will be even lower if I think I’m not infectious because then it would not only be of no benefit to others, since I can’t infect anyone, but it’s of little benefit to me plus being uncomfortable. This guts both rationales, my self-interest and protection of others. When I see people walking around SF without a mask in the crowd, I suspect that may be behind that person’s behavior. Not having the ready availability of better masks makes it difficult to argue they’re for your benefit, which might increase compliance. I’d wear a N95 mask almost all the time if I could get one with exhalation valves. But I can’t.
One could argue that if everyone just took care of themselves—by wearing a face mask to lower the risk of getting infected—then not only would we be helping reduce COVID-19 in general but we’d be motivated to do so because it would be in one’s self-interest. That would be an easier sell, wouldn’t it? But we can’t get good masks, so the only way to appeal to self-interest is to argue that ad hoc masks do protect you from infection, which is a weak argument given how poorly they’ve been shown to perform. Trying to elicit mask compliance by appealing to community interest may work for some but it’s a really hard sell for many people because, well, selfishness and egocentricity.
Of course a flaw with the current rationale—wear a mask to protect others—is that if you think you’re not infectious, then there is no motivation to wear a mask yet you might be infected without realizing it. You’re only as non-infectious as your most recent physical encounter, right? It’s like the old mantra about HIV and sex: your HIV status can change after any sexual encounter. You might not have the coronavirus today but who knows after that last trip to Safeway? Your basis for believing you’re not infected may or may not be well-founded and it is only grounded on your self-perception.
But the way it is supposed to work is that we all agree to mutually help each other by all masking up. That is, I get some protection from you if I give you some protection in exchange. Everybody accepts some responsibility and inconvenience so that everybody can be protected. If I walk down the street without a mask and I encounter someone else without a mask, how can I expect them to protect me if I won’t do the same for them? This is probably a motivation behind ‘mask shaming’—calling out people and publicly shaming them for not wearing a mask. Those not wearing a mask have a duty (to us) to wear one and we shouldn’t let that slide since they’re potentially prolonging the epidemic and the inconvenience to me.
If one were sociopathic, then assisting others without getting something in exchange is completely nonsensical since other people’s wellbeing is irrelevant, only one’s own. But most of us are not sociopathic and we do care about other people, which is an important reason why people do wear masks. Another reason people wear masks is blind obediance: I’m supposed to wear a mask so I’ll do so whether it’s because I don’t want to be shamed or called out or because I just want to fit in and be ignored. This is the effect of authority, which as we have seen with Trump can work in the other direction to, ie. if you do something only because someone with authority tells you to do it, then you’ll change your behavior when said authority changes their mind about what you should do, such as Trump’s disparagement of masks.
But there is a positive side to blind obediance. When you ask people to use their judgment in deciding when to wear a mask in public, you’re assuming that their judgment is sound. Mandating blind obediance requires less judgment—you either comply or you don’t: wear a mask, period. During the height of the quarantine isn’t that why the Italian police stopped everybody who was outside? “Oh I’m tired of being inside. I’ll just go out for a little walk.” They knew that people wouldn’t comply unless forced to do so. People always find a self-serving reason why they should be excused from the rules.
Of course wearing a mask to reduce infection presupposes that there is a likelihood of becoming infected. This is where things get even murkier. The evidence to date—which is subject to change since the novel coronavirus is so new—is that COVID-19 spreads primarily, nearly exclusively, in indoor environments with prolonged exposure. The number of suspected infections in a Chinese study due to an outdoor encounter was less than one out of over 7,000 cases investigated. What that suggests is that we should be more concerned about indoor settings and focus on mitigating transmission there rather than on outdoors. Although outdoor encounters can lead to infection, the risk is very, very low compared to indoor transmission. We should be much less concerned about wearing a mask when cycling outdoors. This is probably why the counties say we are not required to wear a mask when exercising outside.
Why did SF announce a 30-foot rule for wearing a mask? It probably has nothing to do with 30 being a critical empirically-based measure, or a ‘magic’ number, and more to do with a lot of people not bothering to mask up when walking on city streets even when passing other pedestrians. In other words this has nothing to do with epidemiological evidence and more to do with social psychology: the six-foot rule gave people permission not to mask up until someone was very close. But it’s a hassle to mask up and down all the time so some people weren’t masking up at all. Now with the 30-foot rule you’re in effect asked to wear a mask virtually all the time when outside even though the risk of infection while outside is estimated to be about twentyfold less than indoors. From what I’ve seen in SF since the new mask order compliance has really increased even among those in less busy areas such as Twin Peaks. Yet just the other morning I saw plenty of people walking on Market Street without a face covering or even one at hand.
Back to cycling with a mask. To date there is little evidence that wearing a mask while cycling outdoors is providing protection for anybody. As research data has come in, indoor transmission is turning out to be the culprit. Outdoor transmission is much harder to accomplish because of air dispersion and virion degradation severely diminishing the concentration of infectious material. The other factors for infection, distance and exposure time, are usually—but not always—insignificant when cycling—just don’t linger near anybody and maintain social distance. On group rides that’s apparently harder to do; I’ve observed groups rides where participants are bunched up at stop lights or cyclists are pedaling down the road in a tight paceline. Keep in mind that mask use is secondary to social distancing. If you maintain social distance especially outdoors, then mask use becomes redundant.
Despite knowing all this I continue to wear a mask while riding. Perhaps I’m being irrationally risk averse. But masks, like everything else, are signifiers and in this situation they are symbols of cooperation. It may be irrational to stop at a stop light when there is no traffic but drivers do it most of the time, probably from a combination of habit, internalization, fear of a ticket, and cooperation. Those who do not might be reckless…or they might be making a rational decision: no traffic, no cops or cameras, so why should I stop? If masks are primarily for others’ protection, then wearing a mask sends a signal that I am cooperating even if the actual physical function of the mask is near useless. In essence the symbolic function of a mask—as in stopping at a light—is ‘you don’t need to fear me’, which is interesting because we usually think of wearing a mask as ‘I’m afraid of getting infected by you.’ But wearing a mask while cycling when no one is around? That doesn’t make any sense at all. No one is in danger of being infected and you aren’t signifying to anybody (except yourself). However you may want to have a mask ready, say pulled under your chin, in case you unexpectedly have close encounters with others. Or, you may want to wear a mask all the time in case of situations such rounding a corner on a trail and finding yourself next to a hiker. Do you have time to pull that face covering over your face? Maybe not. Wearing a mask all the time means you don’t have to think or take action should someone suddenly approach you.
Wearing a mask while cycling is often uncomfortable especially over here in the East Bay in summer when it can get quite hot. Road cycling culture puts a strange value on suffering. It’s often elevated to mythic status, hence ‘epic’ rides and ultra-long distance efforts like Everesting, centuries, double centuries, Dirty Kanza, Alpe d’Huez, you name it. The discomfort and inconvenience of wearing a face mask for two hours on a ride can be more daunting to cyclists than the prospect of riding a hundred miles. I’m not sure what to make of that except that perhaps it’s only suffering of a specific sort or suffering of one’s choosing that has positive status. Of course real suffering is often something over which you have no choice of in life; it can be unexpectedly thrust upon you and you just have to deal with it, whether it’s a bad reaction to chemotherapy, getting mangled in a high speed car accident, or the dentist not having used enough anesthetic on your root canal. In any case wearing a face mask seems rather minor as far as ‘suffering’ goes and yet elicits strong refusal. Is it because the minor discomfort of a mask is such a gigantic buzzkill that cycling really becomes pointless? That is, mask discomfort nullifies all pleasure of riding, and the point of riding is to have pleasure, so what’s the point of wearing a mask? Perhaps it’s because it’s optional to wear one. If I don’t have to wear one and it’s uncomfortable, why would I wear one? In my experience just slowing down can make wearing a mask while cycling less unpleasant. If that’s true, then why don’t cyclists just slow down and use a mask? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to have to slow down, ie. compromise how they ride.
One way to deal with discomfort is to reframe its purpose. Suffering for a good reason often is incentive enough. Isn’t that why some people ride from SF to LA? For some it’s fun and maybe a challenge. But for others it’s simply a grueling masochistic effort. It’s all about the purpose that can help one endure, hence ride 545 miles in a week.
Perhaps wearing a mask can be reframed as a training tool. I’m curious about the amount of carbon dioxide one rebreathes when cycling with a surgical mask. Why? Because breathing in air with a reduced amount of oxygen is one way to stimulate red blood cell production, hence high altitude training or using a hypoxic chamber, ie. an altitude tent (some of which simulate high altitude by reducing oxygen and replacing it with nitrogen). If it were significant enough, one could eagerly wear a mask in hopes of increasing one’s RBC to go faster. Maybe the racers (or wannabes) would embrace using a mask!
6/24/20 Update. Here‘s an interesting and slightly different view on face coverings that ties into my comments about signifiers. His comment about tolerating the discomfort of a face covering because he respects others resonates.