Mandatory face masks in stores, cars, outside: Where you're expected to wear a covering

More nonessential businesses are reopening, and more than half of the states in the US require face masks or coverings when you go out in public. Here's what you need to know.

Katie Teague Writer II
Katie is a writer covering all things how-to at CNET, with a focus on Social Security and notable events. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing in golf scrambles, practicing yoga and spending time on the lake.
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Face masks are required public indoor wear in many stores and states.

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If you're planning to spend a substantial amount of time outside your home in the near future, it's a good idea to be aware of face mask policies where you live and where you're going. For example, countless retail stores and restaurants, buses, trains, airplanes and ride-hailing services are making changes to their policies to make it mandatory for employees and patrons to wear a face mask. In some places, you can be fined for not covering your nose and mouth. In others, you can be refused entry.

In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people wear a face mask or face covering when social distancing isn't possible, like at a store. Homemade face masks may not be able to prevent you from acquiring the coronavirus, a respiratory pathogen, but they are thought to block larger particles from the coughs, sneezes and saliva of asymptomatic people. In other words, an important purpose of wearing a nonmedical covering is to protect others from you if you don't know that you're sick.

The seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak -- with over 1.8 million confirmed cases in the US and over 6.5 million worldwide -- is prompting some local governments to make wearing masks obligatory. If everyone wears one, the logic goes, every asymptomatic carrier can help prevent transmitting the virus, which has caused nearly 390,000 deaths globally. Experts predict a second wave.

But does that mean you have to wear a face mask every time you leave the house? Here's what we know.

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It's recommended that you wear face masks in public places.

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Where do you have to wear a face mask or covering?

So far, all of the mandates are requiring people to wear masks when going to essential businesses, hospitals, using public transportation and now retail stores, salons and some restaurants have been added to that list. Some beaches, like in LA County, are also requiring face masks or coverings to be worn when you're out of the water. These are places where there are crowds of people, making social distancing much more difficult.

Do I have to wear a face mask in my car?

The mandatory face mask orders don't extend to your car. However, they still apply to situations where you're within six feet of someone outside your household. Lyft and Uber, for example, now require both drivers and passengers to wear a face mask. 

If you're not in the same household as a driver (for example a taxi driver, special assistance vehicle or friend), you might consider both wearing masks -- especially if the windows are up, you'll be recirculating the same air.

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Do I have to wear a face mask outside on a walk, bike ride or jog?

If you're outside on a walk or riding your bike, you don't have to wear a face mask, according to most states' orders. However, LA County does require residents to wear face masks outside, no matter what they're doing, and some states and counties encourage you to carry a mask with you. 

Some guidelines say that you should bring a cloth covering with you in the event that you pass someone else at close range or decide to go into a shop. Depending on your local laws, it's possible you could also be stopped and cited for not wearing or carrying a mask. 

If you're exercising outside, it's best to choose an area that doesn't have much pedestrian traffic, like your neighborhood or outside of the city rather than through crowded neighborhoods. If you have a respiratory or other health concern, you may need to carefully consider your options. Here's more information about exercising and face masks.

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Should children wear face masks?

Most of the counties and states with mandates suggest that children wear face masks when going to essential businesses, starting between the ages of 2 and 9. It isn't recommended for children who have breathing problems or who are under the age of 2 to wear a face mask.

Some areas like San Francisco, however, say that kids up to the age of 12 are not required to wear a face mask. And if they do, they need to be supervised by an adult. States such as Maryland make it a requirement (PDF) for children ages 9 and older to wear cloth coverings.

Where are face masks mandatory?

CNET compiled the stance on face masks in all 50 states, including where face mask use is mandated and where violations are enforced. Keep in mind that individual counties or cities could have tighter laws than the state as a whole, which is something you should make yourself aware of if you travel outside your area.

Individual companies or businesses may also set a face mask policy for customers in an effort to keep employees and patrons safe.

For more information on how to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, here's what you should know about making cloth coverings at home, where you can buy face masks online and what to do if you or someone you live with gets coronavirus.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.