Behind the Curtain (so to speak): When and Why to Wear a Face Covering

Behind the Curtain (so to speak): When and Why to Wear a Face Covering

by Alex Hirsch (SU)

As many of you are aware, the CDC recently recommended that people start wearing a cloth face covering in public places where social distancing is more challenging to observe.  (For more on the CDC’s recommendation and how to make a face covering of your own, check out  Based upon this recommendation, Montgomery County recently issued a health order requiring people to wear face coverings in grocery stores, pharmacies, and large chain retail establishments. 

Notice the wording – face covering – not a mask.  What’s the difference?

This gets at the Why behind the recommendation.  A face covering includes everything from re-purposed underwear to an N95 respirator, whereas a mask in particular refers more to a piece of medical-grade equipment.  (Regarding re-purposed underwear, check out  For the record, I think my children each came up with this idea first.)

As many of you know, people can have SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, and not know it.  The purpose of a face covering is to prevent YOU from unwittingly infecting others, whereas the purpose of a mask is more to prevent you from getting infected BY OTHERS.  Put another way, a face covering is good enough to capture some (not all) of the water droplets that you exhale, but it isn’t very good at preventing you from inhaling droplets containing virus.  Hence the refrain in County Executive Marc Elrich’s emails, which I keep getting:  “My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.”

The CDC and other authorities do NOT recommend that all people wear masks.  Since there is a shortage, masks – especially N95s – should be reserved for people on the frontlines of diagnosing and treating COVID-19.

It’s worth mentioning that although face coverings are not intended to keep out virus, avoid touching the outside of the face covering, where otherwise inhaled virus could be stuck.  Even if you’re diligent not to touch the outside of the face covering, make sure you wash your hands after taking it off and that you wash the covering after each use, as recommended by the CDC.  After all, the whole point is that you could be a carrier of the virus; touching the covering or reusing it without washing it is a great way of getting the virus on your hands and then spreading it.

So what about sporting a face covering outside, even when you are the only soul in sight, or when you are driving alone in the car?  Assuming that you can keep at least six feet of distance from others while outside, and assuming you are not sharing your car with others beyond your immediate family with whom you are quarantined (oh, joy!), I do not think it’s necessary.  Unless, of course, wearing a mask helps keep you “in the zone” of observing social distancing.