With coronavirus variants spreading, are masks needed outdoors?

Click to play video: 'Calls grow to double-up face masks as new COVID-19 variants spread'
Calls grow to double-up face masks as new COVID-19 variants spread
WATCH: Calls grow to double-up face masks as new COVID-19 variants spread – Feb 1, 2021

Face masks have become an important tool in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

A layered, good-fitting mask can not only block the respiratory droplets from reaching others, it can also offer some protection to the wearer.

With the spread of new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 in Canada, some experts say there is now a need to increase masking and offer better guidance for their use both indoors and outdoors.

As these variants, which we know are more transmissible, become more prevalent in our communities, the importance of masking is going to become even more paramount,” Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room physician in Edmonton, Alta., told Global News.

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In Canada, like other countries, masks are mandatory in most indoor public spaces and on public transport. But some cities and provinces also require wearing them outdoors in certain settings.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 variants raise new questions over masking'
COVID-19 variants raise new questions over masking

In Toronto, it is now mandatory to wear a mask or face covering at all times at outdoor skating rinks.

On Dec. 30, the City of Ottawa also introduced new rules requiring masks at all outdoor refrigerated and community skating rinks, but not while skating.

On its website, Ottawa Public Health says: “Residents are encouraged to wear a mask in all scenarios when physical distancing of 2 metres is not possible – both indoors and outdoors.”

Since November, in New Brunswick’s orange-level infection regions, masks are compulsory in outdoor public spaces where people gather and physical distancing cannot be guaranteed, such as sidewalks, public walking trails, parks, markets and playgrounds.

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Over the past month, several cases of new COVID-19 variants that were first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa have been found across Canada.

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Modelling data released last week from Ontario suggested that the U.K. variant will likely become the dominant version of the virus in the province in March.

Officials said the variant is likely at least 30 per cent more transmissible compared to COVID-19 and evidence out of the U.K. suggests there is potentially a higher chance of death.

Click to play video: 'First Nations artist creates COVID-19 mask'
First Nations artist creates COVID-19 mask

Given the “significant threat,” as Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chairman of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table described it, more vigilance is needed, experts say.

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Because we have these more transmissible variants, we really need to be vigilant about masking, distancing, avoiding crowds,” said Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

Click to play video: 'One mask good, two mask better? Experts weigh in'
One mask good, two mask better? Experts weigh in

While there is a lower risk outdoors of transmitting COVID-19 compared to indoors, Marr told Global News people should still be wearing masks when they are close to others.

“The biggest risk outdoors is if you’re in a face-to-face conversation with someone for a while unmasked,” she said.

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, said rather than mandating mask use outdoors, it is better to inform people about when to wear them — for example at recreational public facilities, where there is a higher risk compared to just walking on the street.

“Outdoor transmission is not that common and tends to be associated with close contact for a prolonged amount of time with others,” he told Global News.

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Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Mandatory mask regulation in Quebec high schools could be costly for environment'
Coronavirus: Mandatory mask regulation in Quebec high schools could be costly for environment

As is the case with the flu, studies suggest that respiratory droplets that transmit COVID-19 tend to survive longer in cold, dry air and low humidity. So there is a slightly higher risk of getting COVID-19 outdoors in winter than summer, Chagla said. But ventilation is optimal outside, coupled with the ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, which has some sterilizing effect, he added.

Health Canada recommends the use of face masks made up of at least three layers, including a filter.

But amid concerns of new variants, some, including top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, are also suggesting the use of two masks for extra protection.

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Mithani, who is also part of the Masks4Canada group, said if you are considering double masking, it is important that the most effective mask, for example the surgical one, goes closest to your face and then another cloth mask can go on top to hold it firmly.

It is also important that you’re able to breathe easily, because the air blockage can cause gaps to open up around the sides of your face, Marr and Mithani explained.

Adding a second mask could be incrementally helpful, Chagla said, but added it is more important to have a single mask on that fits well.

“It’s much better to aim for people to have appropriate masks and use them effectively than necessarily adding masks,” he said.

— with files from Heather Yourex-West

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