Is Wearing a Mask Still Worth It as Mandates Drop? What the Experts Say

As mandates peel off on planes, trains and buses, here's what to know about how much protection you get if you're the only one wearing a mask.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Writer
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health news. Before CNET, she worked in local journalism covering public health issues, business and music.
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After a Florida judge overturned the federal mask mandate for public transportation, masking up is now optional in many airports, public transit systems, ride-shares and more. But if you'd like to stay optimally protected against COVID-19, you may be wondering: Is wearing a mask worth it if others aren't wearing one?

We've been (correctly) taught that wearing a mask protects the people around us from the flying bits of airborne virus that escape when we laugh, sneeze, cough or even breathe. But wearing a mask also protects the person wearing it, if only to a lesser degree than what you get from being surrounded by a sea of masked faces. 

Here's what the experts say about how much protection you get from masking up when others around you aren't.

Read more: CDC Tells Biden Administration to Appeal Mask Ruling

What the experts say

"The short answer is yes," says Dr. Reynold Panettieri, Jr, a critical care physician and Professor of Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School -- it is worth it. "The long answer is that it's not as effective as everyone else wearing a mask." 

Wearing a cloth mask reduces your risk of catching COVID-19 by about two-fold, he says, whereas a disposable surgical mask is between "five- and seven-fold better." NIOSH-approved N95 respirators provide the most protection, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when they're worn properly and sealed snugly to your face. 

Dr. Taylor Nelson is an osteopathic infectious disease physician at the University of Missouri Health Care. She said in an email to CNET that protection varies on the type of mask, but also how well it fits. 

"Multilayer cloth masks can limit about 50 to 80% of small particles from escaping when someone coughs," Nelson says. "On the other hand, the same quality of mask may prevent up to about 50% of these particles when the exposed person is wearing a mask while the infected person is not." 

Read more: Put Down That Cloth Face Mask. These Are the Best Face Masks to Help Avoid COVID

Panettieri says the same mask guidance holds true even with omicron's more contagious BA.2 subvariant, because the approximate size of the virus' particles remain the same.

To cut your risk of COVID-19 on public transportation, Nelson recommends modifying your travel route -- even if it adds a bit of time -- to avoid larger crowds and more exposure. This may mean switching bus lines or even walking some of the way, if you're able to.

"The best tip for public transportation is social distancing, if possible," Nelson says. 

Is it safer to stand or sit on a bus or subway? It really doesn't matter, Panettieri says, as your average sneeze travels about 100 miles per hour, which can quickly fill any enclosed space with a virus. There is no advantage to being higher up by standing, or staying lower to the floor of a bus by taking a seat.

N95 masks in a diagonal pattern
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What the research says 

A CDC report from February 2021 on mask effectiveness using simulated respiratory droplets found that "double-masking" by layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask decreased a person's exposure in a no-mask/mask situation by 83%. For a person wearing a "knotted and tucked" medical mask, which tightens the seal around your nose and mouth, there was a 64.5% decrease in exposure. (Check out this CDC video on how to knot and tuck a surgical mask correctly.) 

In the CDC's simulation study, a regular surgical mask provided only 7.5% protection for the wearer. Another simulation study from Japan found cloth masks offered a 20% to 40% reduction in virus uptake compared to no mask, with N95 masks providing the most protection for the wearer (80% to 90% reduction). 

Broadly speaking, people who always wear masks indoors are less likely to test positive for COVID-19 than people who do not, according to a February report by the CDC. People who reported wearing cloth masks had 56% lower odds, people who wore surgical masks had 66% lower odds and those who reported wearing a KN95 or N95 had 83% lower odds. A big qualifier noted in this report, however, is that people who report wearing masks indoors might be more likely to take other protective measures that help prevent COVID-19 infection, such as avoiding crowded areas when possible.

Are planes less risky than other forms of transit? 

Yes, Panettieri says, because the air filtration system is much more effective at clearing viruses from the air than the ventilation system on a bus. 

"If you're sitting next to somebody who's coughing and has COVID, chances are you're going to get it," Panettieri says, no matter the air flow situation. But one person with COVID-19 on an airplane is unlikely to infect the whole group, given the air flow and ventilation system built in, he adds.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the buses, trains and subways many people take to work each day. The exact risk will vary based on the airport, bus station or train platform, according to Nelson. 

"Bus stations, train stations, and airports vary in crowd levels as well as air filtration, as many older buildings have less effective ventilation systems," she says. 

"The bottom line is that the riskiest modes of transportation are any that involve prolonged close contact with others, especially if not masking, and poor ventilation systems," Nelson says.

Another bottom line 

Masks still help, even if you're the only person wearing one. And the most recent mask guidance holds true: Any mask is better than no mask, but cloth masks offer less protection to the wearer than surgical masks and respirators like KN95s, KF94s and especially N95s. 

If you're an older adult, are unvaccinated or have an underlying medical condition that may make you more susceptible to severe COVID-19 disease -- or you live with someone at higher risk -- you will benefit more from the snug fit and good filtration of an N95 respirator, which are now free at some locations. To find one, enter your ZIP code on this site and call the pharmacy to make sure they still have them in stock. 

Read more: 8 COVID Face Mask Myths, Debunked

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.