The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But a recent study showed that wearing a face mask in public may have additional benefits, by encouraging others to keep their distance.
Massimo Marchiori, Ph.D., professor of computer science at the University of Padua in Padua, Italy, was interested in measuring how people respond to masks. To test this, he created what he called a “social distancing belt,” capable of measuring the proximity of oncoming pedestrians.
“Everyone talks about social distancing,” Marchiori said, “but no one had actually measured actual social distancing.”
Marchiori, along with some of his friends, wore the belts around their waists while walking through the streets of Venice. Collectively, they logged more than 12,000 encounters with other people.
The results showed that while walking without a mask on, people passing by were more likely to drift toward Marchiori, within up to about a foot away. However, with a mask on, the distance kept between passersby nearly doubled. The repellent effect was even stronger when he wore goggles.
Marchiori suggests that this correlation stems from a human instinct to be social. The masks serve as a social barrier, naturally pushing others away.
“It’s our humanity that is actually bringing us toward the virus,” said Marchiori. “You have to take away a bit of humanity, to become a bit antisocial, to protect humanity.”
Similar studies about facial expression support this line of thinking.
Psychologist Rebecca Brewer, who studies the role of facial expressions in the way we communicate emotion at the Royal Holloway University of London, said masks affect the way we process the emotions of others.
“In general, humans tend to process faces as a whole, rather than focusing on individual features,” she said. “When we cannot see the whole face, such holistic processing is disrupted.”
In other words, people wearing a mask may be more difficult to read, making them seem less friendly and approachable.
Dr. Petros Levounis, MA, professor, and chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service at University Hospital in Newark, said wearing a mask and social distancing go hand in hand.
“[I]f we mandate people to wear masks, more people will socially distance, which leads to less spread of the virus,” he said.
While this may be true when maintaining distance from strangers in public, a recent study conducted by a group of Yale researchers showed masks may have the opposite effect when it comes to social distancing.
The study, which asked the question, “Do face masks create a false sense of security?” analyzed data from millions of smartphones to measure how masking orders affected how often people left their homes.
It was found that in states with masking orders, Americans were spending about 30 minutes more time away from their homes — often on nonessential business. People felt safer spending more time outside when they knew everyone would be wearing a mask.
Author Eli Fenichel, a Yale University professor of natural resource economics who has studied the relationship between location data and the spread of disease, said this is a dangerous mindset to take on in the face of a global pandemic.
“You’re implicitly telling people it’s ok to go out if you have a mask,” he said. “[A better message would be:] If you absolutely must go out, wear a mask.”
According to the CDC, COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice. Cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings along with other preventive measures, including social distancing.
While wearing a mask in public may help keep people passing by at a distance, the biggest risk of spreading COVID-19 still comes from prolonged contact between infected people and healthy ones, especially indoors. So it’s important to continue to wear a mask and social distance as much as possible.
How to wear a face covering correctly, according to the CDC
- Wash your hands before putting on your face covering
- Put it over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin
- Try to fit it snugly against the sides of your face
- Make sure you can breathe easily
- Don’t put the covering around your neck or up on your forehead
- Don’t touch the face covering, and, if you do, wash your hands