RICHMOND, Va. -- An executive order requiring Virginians to wear masks inside public spaces is set to take effect Friday, and a local infectious disease expert said medical research clearly shows even homemade masks help slow person to person transmission of coronavirus.
Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, chair of the Infectious Disease Division at VCU Health, said all the medical literature he has reviewed proves properly worn masks dramatically reduces oral droplets, expelled when a person talks or coughs.
Some have questioned the efficacy of masks in slowing the spread of the virus and voiced concern they put those with medical condition at greater risk.
“As we learn more about this virus, we’re learning that 20-30 percent of transmission is happening in pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic people,” Dr. Bearman said. “By decreasing the emission of those droplets, you decrease transmission, so I would say the literature is not in any way, shape, or form contradictory on that.”
Studies have shown that certain materials do perform better than others, but study from the University of Edinburgh released last week found facial coverings reduced the distance exhaled breath traveled by more than 90 percent.
Dr. Bearman said it is important to wear coverings snuggly around your face and nose in order to reduce the amount of air exiting the sides.
“With cloth masks it’s most important that it’s fixed behind the ears or around the head and that it cover both the nose and the mouth. I’m seeing people walking around with masks, but having their nose sticking out of the top of the mask. That’s not very effective at all,” he said.
Governor Ralph Northam’s executive order takes effect Friday and includes a list of exceptions.
Face coverings must be worn:
• If you’re 10+ years old
• Inside ALL brick and mortar stores
• Inside ALL salons, barbershops, etc.
• Inside places where people congregate
• Inside ALL restaurants (except while eating)
• On public transportation
• When accessing state or local government services
Exceptions to the face-cover rule:
• While eating or drinking at a restaurant
• While exercising
• If you have a health condition that keeps you from wearing a face cover
• Children under the age of 10.
“This is about people’s health, not locking people up in jail and giving them large fines,” Northam said Tuesday.
The Virginia Department of Health and state labor officials will enforce the order, but not law enforcement, the Governor’s office said. Businesses who are “grossly negligent” could face fines or license suspension, similar to health licenses for restaurants, according to Northam’s Chief of Staff.
“Look this is for grossly negligent actors, we're not talking about someone who just forgets to wear a mask; you obviously have a warning,” said Clark Mercer.
Government mask orders in other parts of the country, like Texas, have faced legal challenges. Virginia Republicans criticized Northam’s mask requirement, saying it puts an undue enforcement burden on Virginia businesses already facing financial stress.
“We are deeply concerned about Governor Northam’s actions today. It is unconscionable to require businesses to enforce a government mandate under threat of sanction from government agencies. This puts yet another burden on businesses already reeling from months of being shut down or severely limited,” House Republican leadership said in a joint statement.
Dr. Bearman said from a medical perspective, wearing a face covering in publicly accessible buildings is an important tool moving forward.
“We should look at this as a collective effort. That we’re all doing our parts to prevent the spread of the virus, to keep ourselves health, and make ourselves safe so we can get back to life as usual,” Dr. Bearman said.
As for those who cannot wear masks for medical reason, Dr. Bearman offered the following advice:
“I would say you’d limit social contact as much as possible if you’re unable to wear a mask, definitely perform hand hygiene, and if you must be in a social setting, do the absolute best to respect the six-feet social distancing recommendation.”
Virginia’s mask order only applies to those inside buildings, and Dr. Bearman said research shows the virus spreads much more easily indoors.
“Indoor environments: the concentration of viral particles, droplets in the air, is going to be greater; whereas outside because of the open air, the breeze, the viral particles disperse and make it much less infectious. Remember, it probably takes much more than one viral particle to get infected. It probably takes thousands,” he said.