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Explainer: Should I wear a mask while riding?

It's a good idea to keep a mask or neck gaiter on hand when heading out for a ride, but the situation determines the importance of when to wear it.

Social distancing reigns supreme when it comes to preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Nevertheless, now an additional layer of precaution has been recommended by many governing bodies: wearing a non-medical mask at all times when going about essential activities outside the home.

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We spoke with pulmonologist and critical care physician Dr. Hunter Smith, in Boulder, Colorado to find out what that means for cyclists. For the purpose of the interview, we used a neck gaiter, often referred to by the brand name Buff, as an example of an option for a non-medical mask.

Why masks and why now?

A gaiter that fits snugly over the nose and mouth can serve as an effective barrier. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The new recommendation for masks when social distancing is difficult (ie. going into a store) stems from increasing evidence that the novel coronavirus can be spread by presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. Therefore, the primary benefit of wearing a mask is that you will protect others if you are infected.

“It’s important for people to realize that they may be asymptomatic carriers,” Smith says. “What if they have seasonal allergies and are occasionally sneezing? They’re broadcasting droplets.”

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Wearing a mask can prevent those droplets from moving both ways — going out and coming in — which is why it can also be beneficial for all people to wear them. Essentially, the mask acts as a barrier in two ways: for those that are infected, it can prevent disease transmission; for those that aren’t, it can protect them from the risk. 

Nevertheless, not all masks are created equal. We know to leave N95 and other medical-grade masks to the medical professionals, but there are certain DIY solutions that are more effective than others.

“The ‘buff’ is great because it covers both the nose and mouth securely,” Smith says. “All air that’s coming in and out is fairly filtered. It’s a good solution for a cyclist and runner.”

Bandanas, worn bank-robber style over the nose, are not. If the mask doesn’t fit tightly over nose and jaw and filter air coming into mouth, it doesn’t do any good at all, he says. 

Not all rides are created equal

Carry a mask on your ride if you’re going to be in close proximity to others. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Whether or not cyclists should wear a mask depends largely on where they are riding and how many other people are around. Many trail systems and parks have seen a huge increase in traffic in recent weeks, and these are the places that cyclists might want to take more precautions than if they are riding open roads.

“Unless the trail is packed with people who cannot maintain any distance,” Smith says, “the chance of getting a lot of viral particles on an open trail with breeze blowing is slim to none.” Nevertheless, since many areas have seen a large uptick in visitors, it’s smart to wear or carry a buff so that if your trail is crowded, you have the option of covering up. Even if you haven’t come close to people on a trail, he says, you could wear your mask at the trailhead parking lot.

For cyclists that may be opening and closing gates to access trails or roads, there are additional considerations. 

“There, you’re touching something that other people have touched as well,” Smith says. “After you do that, you probably don’t want to touch your face until you hand sanitize.”

Even with gloves on, cyclists should avoid touching their faces after they’ve touched a gate, or another object that others have put their hands, on as well. ‘In that situation, if you have to wipe your nose,” Smith says, “use the back of your glove only.”

For cyclists heading out on the road, the likelihood of being in close enough proximity to someone to spread disease is low. Consequently, there is no need to wear a mask on the road, or in wide-open areas, Smith says, “but if a cyclist plans to stop at a store or to interact with someone during the ride, it’s wise to carry a buff or mask for that reason.” One thing he wants to reiterate: group rides should not be happening.

Takeaways

First, on the bike as in life: if you’re not feeling well, stay home.

“You don’t go out, you don’t exercise,” Smith says. “Or, if you’re not sure, you wear a mask and you stay far away from people.”

Second, social distancing rules apply on the bike as they do elsewhere. No group rides, no congregating at trailheads or parks, and give people space on the trail.

Third, when it comes to masks, keep one handy, and wear it when you’re in close proximity to others.

Cyclists who aren’t wearing masks do not pose an inherent threat or put themselves in danger if they’re heeding social distancing recommendations and continuing to practice meticulous hand hygiene. If cyclists need to pass or wait on another rider to do so, Smith reminds them to do so safely.

“Just ride on and give a thumbs up,” Smith says.