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Bay Area residents must now wear masks in public

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Enforcement will go into effect Wednesday

A police officer asks a group of homeless men to social distance themselves. Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Residents of San Francisco and five other Bay Area counties are expected to wear masks covering their nose and mouth for trips outside of the home starting this week, as health officers continue tailoring shelter-in-place orders designed to stifle the spread of COVID-19.

SF Health Officer Tomas Aragon joined colleagues from Alameda, Contra Costs, Marin, and San Mateo counties signed off on mask ordinances Friday. The rules went into effect immediately, but won’t be enforced until Wednesday. Sonoma County had an existing mask order.

San Francisco’s order employs similar language to ones issued in other counties—identical in many places. Here’s what residents need to know:

  • The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health agencies recommend wearing a physical barrier over your nose and mouth while in public, citing the potential to transmit the novel coronavirus via “respiratory droplets” such as the product of a sneeze or other exhalation. Generally, with the exception of medical-grade masks used by healthcare workers, a mask isn’t that useful for protecting you from the novel coronavirus, but it can diminish the chances that people who are contagious will spread the disease to others.
  • Bay Area health officers say that residents should wear a mask while doing things like standing in line at the store or bank, taking public transit, and working at essential jobs that involves close quarters with coworkers or the general public, but not for things like working in a private office without anyone nearby, driving alone in your own vehicle, or exercising by jogging, running, hiking, or biking, although people should have a mask on them at all times just in case.
  • Masks should be “made of cloth, fabric, or other soft or permeable material, without holes.” They can be professionally made or homemade, so long as they are secure and reasonably sturdy. Even something as simple as a scarf or t-shirt wrapped around the head/face will do, as long as it full covers your nose and mouth. More extensive covering isn’t necessary. Masks need to be cleaned and sanitized regularly.
  • The guidelines stress that wearing a mask is not a substitute for measures like keeping six feet apart or frequent hand-washing. But since it’s not always possible to maintain the prescribed distance from everyone around you, face coverings provide an extra layer of social insurance.
  • Counties also caution that civilians should avoid buying medical-grade masks that healthcare workers need instead, and that exceptions will be made if a doctor recommends that someone not wear a mask for health reasons or if they work a job where a facial covering would potentially violate workplace safety rules. “A face Covering should also not be used by anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove” their own mask without help.

“My mask protects you, and your mask protects me,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, head of the SF Department of Public Health, said in a statement on Friday, emphasizing that wearing a mask is not much protection on its own, but that a citywide norm of mask use will cut down on potential viral transmission.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed called masks in public “the new normal” going forward, saying that even after shelter-in-place orders ease that people will probably have to continue wearing them in many places. Note that although Breed and Colfax announced the order Friday with public statements, Aragon, in his position as health officer for the county, has the authority to actually issue the order.

San Francisco’s shelter-in-place guidelines are in effects through May 3, though an extension is possible. The statewide stay-home order from Gov. Gavin Newsom has no set expiration.