A Doctor Explains Why You Should Social Distance Even While Wearing a Face Mask

One of the hard parts about controlling the novel coronavirus is the amount of individual responsibility we've all had to take on. Yes, we should all wear face masks in public, doctors say. Yes, we should still be social distancing. Yes, we should still be washing our hands frequently and avoiding crowded indoor spaces. None of that is fun or easy, especially if it impacts your job, school, or family, but those strategies are the most effective at saving lives — especially, experts say, when done together.

Wearing face masks is particularly important; recent research shows that some masks can limit respiratory droplet dispersal by over seven feet. (As far as scientists know, respiratory droplets are the main mode of COVID-19 transmission.) Even a homemade cloth face mask can prevent respiratory droplets from your mouth and nose from reaching those around you, which is why they're recommended for slowing the spread. But if possible, you should continue to practice social distancing at the same time, said Stanford infectious disease doctor and immunologist Anne Liu, MD.

There are a few reasons. "Some people don't wear their masks right," Dr. Liu pointed out. "People get tired of it, so they get kind of lax," pulling the mask down to their nose or chin, for example. In addition, even though face masks do a good job of catching a majority of respiratory droplets, non-medical-grade masks aren't going to stop everything, she said. Droplets "will certainly go out the sides." Social distancing while wearing a mask gives you a better chance of protecting yourself and others. "These measures have to be combined in order to reduce viral transmission," Dr. Liu said. (If you haven't found a mask you like yet, here are options you can buy online.)

As for other ways to stay safe, Dr. Liu said it comes down to many of the common-sense measures we're already relying on: social distancing, wearing a face mask, frequent handwashing, and staying outdoors if you have to be around other people. When you're outside, Dr. Liu explained, respiratory droplets will disperse more quickly; indoors, they can "build up and concentrate" more easily.

"The highest-yield things are the basics," she said. "If these things are done very consistently, and all of them are done as much as possible, we will be in a much better spot."