Coronavirus

Ashish Jha expects states to lift outdoor mask mandates in next few weeks

"We've known for a year that outdoor infections are extremely rare."

The scene along Memorial Drive last June as runners use masks along the banks of the Charles River. Stan Grossfeld / The Boston Globe

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Dr. Ashish Jha says he expects states to begin lifting outdoor mask mandates in the next few weeks.

And while Jha has generally cautioned against loosening COVID-19 restrictions too quickly, he suggests that, in this case, it may be the right move.

“We’ve known for a year that outdoor infections are extremely rare,” Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said Sunday on CNN.

“They only happen when you have large packed rallies for instance,” he said. “So if you are not participating in one of those, I think it is pretty safe to be out and about walking around without a mask, especially in large parts of the country where infection numbers are under reasonable control.”

Jha stressed that face covering requirements for indoor settings, where COVID-19 transmission overwhelmingly occurs, should remain in place for “a while longer,” as vaccination rollouts — in Massachusetts and across the country — race forward to combat the rise of more contagious variants of the virus. Jha also noted Sunday that, following the post-second surge decline in COVID-19 rates, infections in the United States have flatlined for roughly two months.

Most states imposed mask mandates last year requiring people to wear some form of a face covering when in public indoor places, as well as when they couldn’t consistently maintain six feet of distance from other people. An increasing number of those states have moved this spring to drop all statewide mask mandates, even for public indoor settings. That’s something that Brown’s Dr. Megan Ranney said on CNN shouldn’t be done until “around 70 percent or 80 percent” of American adults are vaccinated, citing variant-fueled spikes in places like Michigan.

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Still, according to Jha, outdoor activity should be viewed “largely as a safe thing, unless you have congregations of large numbers of people together for a long periods of time.”

“I expect over the next few weeks states to start lifting outdoor mask mandates,” he said.

Jha’s comments Sunday come amid a groundswell of recent articles in Slate, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and the New England Journal of Medicine suggesting the time has come to end outdoor mask mandates, given increased vaccinations and the already-low risk of catching the disease outside. According to The Atlantic, “almost all of the documented cases of outdoor transmission have involved long conversations, or face-to-face yelling.” Additionally, Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Julia Marcus said that some mask skeptics became more amenable to wearing them indoors when they were told masking wasn’t as important outside.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker tightened the state’s mask mandate in November to require face coverings at all outdoor public places, with no exceptions for when individuals are not near others — a step further than other states have gone. Despite criticism that the tightened order went too far and might undermine public trust, Baker argued that it sent a simple message about the importance of wearing a mask.

During a press conference last week, Baker said that potentially relaxing the state’s mask mandate would depend on federal guidance, as well as “how fast we are able to vaccinate people and how big a deal these variants are in.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends people wear masks in “public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people.”

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