When people travel, it’s virtually impossible to create or stay within a pandemic-protective bubble. After all, one of the lures of travel is its inherently social nature.
Travelers find themselves meeting and interacting with strangers at airports, train stations and roadside rest stops; on ships, planes, trains and buses; and at accommodations, restaurants and other public places at their destinations.
Why face masks matter
Scientists generally agree that COVID-19 spreads from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets that are released when people talk, cough, or sneeze. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, these droplets—which can travel a distance of around six feet— can land in the mouth and noses of other people nearby or inhaled into their lungs, spreading infection.
Of course, responsibility for protecting travelers and lessening the risk of infection is one that has to be shared among governments, industry and citizens. Both governments and almost every sector of the travel industry have been taking active steps to implement COVID-19 health and safety protocols. and employing new technologies to protect travelers and those who work in the industry.
Travelers need to play their parts, too. They need to stay home if they have any signs or symptoms of illness; be cautious about travel if they are immunocompromised; avoid travel to “so-called” virus hotspots; and comply with what have been called “blunt public health measures.” These include: maintaining social distance in public places; being diligent about hand-washing, using hand sanitizers, or as appropriate, using gloves; and wearing face coverings to protect others and themselves.
Face mask science, policies and practices
A recent study in The Lancet, funded in part by the World Health Organization, systematically reviewed 172 observational studies that examined the use of social distancing, face masks, and eye protection to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.
The researchers acknowledge that this study had limitations. But this is the first study that “provides the currently best available evidence to inform optimum use of these common and simple interventions,” wrote co-author Karla Soto from McMaster University in Canada.
Evidence from ten of the studies, which included 2,647 subjects, found that the risk of infection or transmission when wearing a mask was 3% compared to 17% when not wearing one. “However, people must be clear that wearing a mask is not an alternative to physical distancing, eye protection or basic measures such as hand hygiene, but might add an extra layer of protection,” said co-author Dr. Derek Chu, Assistant Professor at McMaster University.
In a linked commentary to the study report, lead author Professor Raina MacIntyre of the Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales in Australia spoke to the importance of face coverings: “Universal face mask use might enable safe lifting of restrictions in communities seeking to resume normal activities and could protect people in crowded public settings and without households.”
The face mask morass
Face mask usage and policies vary from country to country, and within countries, can even vary from region to region. For example, in the U.S., policies differ among different states and localities. Sometimes the wearing of masks is required; other times it is merely suggested. .
This makes it difficult for travelers to know and comply with the “rules.” In addition, the mask use policies of a particular destination or setting may be one consideration that factors into the choices travelers make.
According to industry publication Travel Weekly, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, at a virtual forum recently hosted by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said that face masks are vital to the comeback of the hospitality sector, playing “a significant part of how we earn confidence from the consumer.”
“This issue has gotten far too politicized, which is a tragedy,” he said. “And it’s complicated from a government perspective, because what are you permitted to actually require in a country like the U.S., where you’ve got a strong sense of personal liberty?”
SO…how do you know where they use masks?
Several resources are available to help travelers learn about face mask use here and abroad:
1- #Masks4All is an all-volunteer organization that advocates that individuals and governments follow the scientific evidence supporting the use of non-medical face masks in public.
In addition to summarizing the science, the organization’s website maintains a list of countries that require, recommend, or do not require face masks in public, as well as another searchable list of the public mask requirements in all U.S. States. Both lists are updated daily.
2- TripAdvisor recently developed a new initiative called TravelSafe, designed to help travelers search for accommodations and restaurants that are taking additional COVID-19 safety precautions, including the mandatory use of face masks.
Just wear the damn mask
Whether close to home or traveling afar, the use of face masks helps us protect one another.
“We are interconnected,” said Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a recent briefing held by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. “The chances are that if you get infected [even without showing symptoms], you are going to infect someone else. We are all in this together.”