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Coronavirus Advice: When Is It OK To Not Wear A Mask?

How to Plague: Do I need to reinvite my wedding guests? And other advice for life under the coronavirus.

Posted on April 25, 2020, at 10:00 a.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

How to Plague is BuzzFeed News' advice column for these incredibly confusing times. We’ll try to help with your queries about social distancing etiquette and ethical dilemmas large and small, and call up some actual experts to weigh in when needed. Send your questions to scaachi.koul@buzzfeed.com.

This week I asked the BuzzFeed News coronavirus updates text group for their questions about mask etiquette. (Join the text group! It’s low volume, and with daily news summaries and occasional updates.) Here’s what people wanted to know:

If I go on a walk outdoors and I’m never closer than 6ft from anyone, do I have to wear a mask? Rules say no, but is that bad etiquette?
Julia, California

Is it bad etiquette to not actively wear a mask while walking the dog?? When I walk my dog, I keep my mask around my neck, and if I see people I'll quickly put it on or cross the street/stay 6ft away. But keeping it on as I stroll down the block alone feels insane and also extremely claustrophobic or makes it hard to communicate with my dog.
—Alana, Brooklyn, New York

The most common question was some version of “Do I need to wear a mask outside if I’m not near people?” There are two parts to this answer.

Courtesy Alana

Charley, the dog who is being communicated with.

The first is common sense: If there are zero humans around, no, obviously, you don’t need to wear a mask (although please bring it with you just in case). Where you live, what time it is, and where you are going will all dictate how reasonable it is that you’re not coming near any other humans. If you live in Manhattan and you don’t see too many people out on your block at 6 a.m. while you walk the dog…c’mon. It’s fine.

A good way to gauge the amount of distance where it’s OK to dangle your mask around your neck or off one ear is to imagine your mouth is your asshole. If you were completely alone, it would be fine to let your nude tushy hang out, but you’d want to pull on your pants as soon as you saw anyone coming, even from 100 feet away. Basically, if someone can see you, mask up.

The second part is that wearing a mask even when you’re not close to other people sends a message about mask acceptance. People across the street or in their houses looking out the window will see you in your mask and think, Ah, OK, I guess we should wear masks now on walks, huh — which is ultimately a good thing. Wearing masks feels awkward, both physically and socially. It’s uncomfortable. It fogs your glasses. Maybe you feel suspicious-looking. There’s a strong temptation to avoid wearing it, even though you know by now that it’s for the greater good to just buck up and put it on your face. Peer pressure in the form of seeing everyone else wearing it all the time (instead of just occasionally IF you’re really close to another person) will help make it easier for everyone.

All of this — social distancing, masks, staying at home — sucks ass and feels like shit. But it’s the ethical thing to do because although it’s a personal discomfort, it serves a greater good. The mask isn’t for you; it’s for everyone else. Set a good example around your neighborhood by wearing your mask on walks unless you are really and truly alone.

I was in line to get into Home Depot yesterday and the guy in front of me was coughing. He had no mask or gloves. He was covering his mouth with his hands. Would it have been appropriate to wap him upside the head with a frying pan?
Meg, California

Ethically, I cannot endorse such violence, although I feel certain no jury would ever convict you. (BuzzFeed’s lawyers, who are very nice people, have definitely not read and approved this statement.) There’s a very high chance this guy was behaving unethically — skipping the mask and gloves for his own comfort and risking the lives of others. But it’s possible he had some legitimate excuse; maybe his mask had broken just a few minutes before, maybe he had a medical condition that makes mask-wearing extremely difficult. Maybe a wizard cursed him and stole his gloves. Who knows.

We can silently judge people who aren’t following the rules in our heads, but let’s not yell at strangers. Be kind.


The journalists at BuzzFeed News are proud to bring you trustworthy and relevant reporting about the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member and sign up for our newsletter, Outbreak Today.


I feel like everyone should be wearing masks all the time. Is that not the expectation? I work at Starbucks, and we're only operating with a drive-thru right now and are required to wear masks to work; genuinely about 85% of people aren't wearing masks or gloves or protective attire of any sort. A lot of people will use hand sanitizer after we hand them drinks. It's deeply frustrating to see people not adhering to even the most basic protective measures, so I can understand why people are upset that not everyone is being safe.
Allie, Houston

I appreciate that this isn’t so much a question as a comment, because it’s a good thing for everyone who is tempted to not wear a mask while dealing with other people to see and remember. Hopefully, people will start feeling the peer pressure to wear a mask when interacting with strangers, and you’ll start to see more people being safe.

I have hyperhidrosis — excessive sweating — specifically, craniofacial. When I go to the store for my immunocompromised mom, I start sweating within minutes. It thus makes a wet spot all around my nose and philtrum under my paper mask that I feel strangers are looking at, thinking is caused by a runny nose, indicating I'm infected. I'm awaiting some thicker fabric masks from Etsy — but for now all I have is a thin paper mask from Dollar Tree. How can I make it clear it's not mucus? Also any advice for sweaty people in these times would be good. I really don't need people assuming I have a fever.
—Gloria, Philadelphia

You are under no obligation to notify people of your medical condition, but I can see why it feels awkward — kind of like that feeling if you go into a store and then walk out without buying anything and you want to yell “I DIDN’T STEAL ANYTHING, I SWEAR!” at the clerk because you recognize it seems suspicious. You could do a quick “ha ha don’t worry, I’m not sick, I’m just very sweaty” to the pharmacist or cashier at the store as a form of small talk.

Another option would be to print up a T-shirt that says “I’m not sick, I’m just sweaty,” but you may find that that approach will backfire.

My "Not involved in human trafficking" T-shirt has people asking a lot of questions already answered by my shirt.

I had to postpone my wedding that was originally set to be this May 2020 to next year, and I have already received many of our RSVPs. Some of the RSVPs were a no (for reasons not disclaimed), and I am wondering if it would be rude to just count them out for the next date next year. Most of the "no" RSVPs were from out-of-town guests, so I assumed their response was travel-related, which wouldn't change for our new date. Just wondering if they should receive the announcement about the new date?
—Hannah, Virginia

Here’s what Emily Forrest, a wedding expert from wedding site Zola says:

“If you've had to delay but you're keeping the guest list the same, definitely communicate your new date to all your guests regardless of their original RSVP. Plans change, and guests who couldn't attend your original date might be able to now. If you're worried about spending money on new invitations, consider ordering ‘change the date’ cards … or just send a message via your wedding website. If you need to scale down your guest list because of your new situation — we know that many couples are in a different financial situation now than they were in a few weeks ago — then it's totally fine to skip sending an invite to somebody who is not on your new list.”

Reinvite the decliners. Who knows, they may have just had a scheduling conflict for your original date.

I am somewhat suspicious of Forrest’s idea that you can just not send an invite to certain people who had already responded “yes” for the original date if you want to have a smaller guest list for round 2. I think you’d have to contact the person directly and explain the situation politely. No one is going to hold it against you if you say you need to scale down the wedding size due to financial circumstances — especially since you may have had to eat a deposit or another nonrefundable expense. However, it’s kind of wack to just never mention the whole thing to someone and never send them a new invite. Imagine them seeing your wedding on Instagram that they somehow didn’t get invited to, and how weird they’d feel. Big-time yikes.


Katie Notopoulos here with a quick housekeeping note: This is my last week doing this advice column before going on parental leave. Scaachi Koul will be answering your questions going forward, so send your questions to scaachi.koul@buzzfeed.com, or sign up for our text messaging service to send questions that way.


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    Katie Notopoulos is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture and is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.

    Contact Katie Notopoulos at katie@buzzfeed.com.

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