The short answer is yes. Masks are effective at reducing your risk of getting COVID, even if everyone around you is barefaced. But that effectiveness varies depending on the type of mask you're wearing and how you're wearing it.
Medical masks are good, but FFP2s are better
Tight-fitting FFP2 and N95 masks provide 75 times better protection compared to well-fitting surgical masks, according to a study by the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organizationin Göttingen, Germany. "Many health care workers, scientists who work with nasty pathogens and workers who may be exposed to hazardous airborne particles on the job rely on specialized masks like N95s for protection, so we know that properly fitted, high-efficiency masks work," said Linsey Marr, a professor at Virginia Tech and expert on airborne viral transmissions.
The fit of your mask plays a big role in how protective it is, the Max Planck researchers found. If it doesn't fit tightly, properly enclosing your mouth and nose, it won't work as well. The study reported that masks adjusted to sit perfectly on the bridge of the nose blocked over four times more particles than the masks that didn't.
The end of masks?
Earlier this week, a U.S. federal judge lifted the mask mandate on public transportation, including on domestic flights. In Spain, mask mandates have been lifted everywhere except on public transport and in health care centers. In Germany, the government agreed to end most of the country's COVID-19 rules in late March, despite recording its highest infection rate since the start of the pandemic days earlier. Masks are only officially required on public transport and in health care centers, but private businesses can still ask their customers to wear one. In many areas, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, whether you wear a mask is largely up to you.
What people think of the relaxed measures
In a supermarket in the small town of Mörlenbach, located on the outskirts of Heidelberg, Germany, only a few people weren't wearing masks. When asked why they'd opted against masking up, some said they were just happy the mask requirement had finally been lifted. Others said they found the masks uncomfortable and hard to breathe in.
Some of the unmasked shoppers acknowledged many of the benefits of masks, and said they still wear them in more crowded places like public transport. One masked shopper said he's basing his masking decisions on the local COVID case rates. "I want to protect myself and I want to wait a little bit to see what is going to happen to the infection numbers," he said. "If they don't increase in a big way, I will probably stop masking. I'm using one now because at work there were a few infections."
When asked for his thoughts on the lifting of the mask mandate, he said it should be up to people to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask or not. "We are now at a point where you shouldn't be forced to wear a mask," he said. "So those who want to use them can use them and those who don't, don't have to."
But some think it's still too early. "I think it's more safe for me and for other people to wear masks," said one masked shopper. "I don't have a problem wearing one for 15 minutes when I go to the supermarket. I wore masks for two years, and for me it's not a problem." She said Germany's restrictions had been lifted too early, given the country's high infection rates.
Mask behaviour appears to vary based on location. On Reddit, a user from Bavaria reported that at their local supermarket nearly everyone continues to wear a mask. In contrast, a user from the eastern region of Saxony-Anhalt estimated that around 90 per cent of shoppers in their local supermarket were maskless.
A change of mentality
Masking is nothing new for countries like Japan, where it was already common for people to mask up when they were feeling under the weather. Whether other countries adopt a similar long-term approach remains to be seen.
There are many factors involved in COVID infection: The distance between you and the infected person, the type of interaction you have, whether the contact took place outdoors or indoors, and if indoors, how well-ventilated the space is. Whether you catch the virus also depends on factors like a person's level of infectiousness and your own immune response. While there's still a lot we don't know about how people get infected with COVID, one thing is clear: Wearing a mask is definitely better protection than not wearing one, especially for people who are immunocompromised or have a high risk of developing severe symptoms.
German health authorities still recommend wearing masks in crowded indoor areas where it's hard to maintain a safe distance.