A woman in a red coat sitting on a train wearing a protective face mask.

.(Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

23 May 20


Some countries can impose serious penalties on people who don’t wear face masks in public

Coronavirus restrictions in Australia, are easing and that means there’s more and more people getting out and about.

But COVID-19 is still out there and people have been urged to be cautious and stay vigilant about protecting themselves as best they can. In other countries, that protection includes a face mask — some choose to wear them, others have to.

In Australia, though, the broad advice remains that most people don’t need one.

Here’s what we know so far about why that is and whether it’s likely to change.

People in other countries have to wear masks. Most Australians don’t. Why?

Many countries around the world, as well as some US states, have implemented various directions for people to wear face masks in public places to try and limit the spread of coronavirus.

In parts of Asia, it’s almost expected out of courtesy and safety to wear a face mask, but places like Singapore have now introduced fines if people don’t wear one.

And in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain”.

Some states have enforced the use of masks in shops or other public spaces and the CDC has encouraged people to make their own cloth masks.

In Australia, the current advice from the Federal Government is that the majority of people won’t benefit from wearing a surgical mask and if you’re well, you don’t need one.

There are different requirements for people who have returned from certain locations overseas, who think may they have been in contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus or who have tested positive, but broadly, surgical masks aren’t strongly recommended or required.

A woman wearing a protective mask.
There are multiple different types of face masks. Some are more practical for limiting the spread of coronavirus than others.(AP: Alvaro Barrientos)

University of the Sunshine Coast nursing program leader Matt Mason says the biggest difference between those countries and Australia is the level of risk.

“The main difference is that we simply don’t have the same burden of disease that America or the UK or some of the other countries have,” he says.

“The risk of catching the disease is much, much lower here because we simply don’t have it circulating to the same extent that America has.”

Australia’s advice on face masks currently matches up with the World Health Organization, which recommends that if you’re healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you’re caring for someone with COVID-19.

Now that more people are out and about, should I wear a mask?

The quick answer is that healthy people still don’t need to wear a mask.

University of New South Wales infectious disease epidemiologist Abrar Chughtai says that advice isn’t expected to change in Australia in the near future unless there’s a significant spike in cases.

“It’s not to protect healthy people, but to prevent the spread of infection,” he says.

“At some stage, if we have a second wave or widespread cases in the community, I’m sure the Australian Government will also recommend the use of masks but at this stage, you should not need one.”

There’s also no rule that says you can’t wear a mask — but it’s important to think about how you’re wearing it.

“I don’t think there’s any problem with people wanting to wear a mask. But there are some things we need to consider,” Mr Mason says.

“The risks for the person who’s wearing them come from how they interact with that mask in terms of taking it on and off, maybe reusing it, or fiddling with it while they’re wearing it.

“While a mask can do that because it’s a physical barrier, what we do see is that people fiddle with the mask and are therefore putting your hands, which could be dirty, around your face.”

A healthcare worker in gloves, a face mask and a green bib speaks on her mobile phone which is wrapped in plastic
Australian healthcare workers reported shortages of masks and other protective equipment when the pandemic began.(Reuters//Loren Elliott)

What about gloves?

Nope, you don’t really need gloves either.

Gloves, like masks, can act as a barrier between your hands and whatever you’re touching, but that means pretty much nothing if you still touch your face with gloves on.

Dr Chughtai says if you’re out and about, gloves can actually lead you to wash your hands less — and that’s not good.

“The virus will not transmit through skin, it needs a portal of entry and that could be through the mouth, nose or eyes,” he says.

“The general public don’t need to use gloves. They should wash their hands and … avoid touching their face.”

Gloves are also similar to masks in that they’re single-use.

An official in protective gear disinfects a mosque.
It’s crucial for health workers to have access to all the appropriate protective equipment, including masks and gloves.(AP: Achmad Ibrahim)

So, if you’re not working in a high-contact environment and you’re powering through a new pair every time you touch something different, that’s a lot of demand and a lot of waste.

“It’s probably easier and better for the environment just to have alcohol-based hand sanitiser and clean your hands more frequently than to wear gloves,” Mr Mason says.

“For people who are out and about or returning to work, that attention to detail on hand hygiene and trying not to transfer things from the environment to your face is going to be really important.”

So, what should I do to prevent coronavirus spread?

Not much different from the advice we’ve been given from the start: wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay home if you’re sick.

As restrictions ease, that could become trickier — but Mr Mason says we have to try.

“Something we’re potentially likely to see here in Australia is people may put a mask on when they’re not feeling 100 per cent and go to work or school, which is what we don’t want people doing,” he says.

A family checking their mobile phones at an airport, both parents wear face masks.
People keeping up their handwashing and social distancing could be the difference between eased restrictions and more lockdowns.(AP: Michael Dwyer)

“Even though that mask is designed to stop someone coughing and spluttering over others, we don’t want unwell people at work.

“There’s a whole range of social reasons why that’s an easy thing to say and not an easy thing to do, because Australia is a highly casualised workforce.”

Dr Chughtai says the most important thing at this stage is to maintain social distancing and keep washing your hands.

“We don’t need to panic. People should focus on Government instructions like keeping a safe distance,” he says.