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Face Masks: Do I Need One? How Do They Work?

Olive, green and red face masks stacked on top of each other
Face masks are a helpful tool you can use to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As offices slowly reopen or as employees start a new phase of socially distanced work, you may want to consider face masks as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. But many employers have questions as to how to best implement mask protocols, and their benefits and drawbacks.

Because the COVID-19 virus can be spread through respiratory droplets, you can become exposed to it through sneezes, coughs, or fluid transmitted through talking. Droplets can be inhaled by people standing nearby, or transmitted by touching infected surfaces and then moved by touching your hands to your face, eyes, or mouth.

Avoiding exposure to the virus is the best way to prevent infection. Face masks or coverings can help lower transmission opportunities, especially in public areas.


What’s the difference between surgical masks and non-surgical ones?

Surgical/medical-grade masks include the N95 masks that are necessary for healthcare workers to protect themselves from viral transmission through droplets in the air. Non-surgical masks and face coverings are recommended for use by the general public in areas where social distancing may not be possible all of the time.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that cloth face coverings include the following specifications:

  • Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
  • Be secured with ties or ear loops
  • Include multiple layers of fabric
  • Allow for breathing without restriction
  • Be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape


Is wearing a mask enough protection against COVID-19?

A mask is only one way to slow transmission of the virus, not 100% prevention. You should still take care to perform regular cleaning and sanitization of surfaces at your business and encourage remote work and social distancing when possible.


  • Encourage everyone to frequently wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when soap and water is not available
  • Provide tissues and no-touch trash cans for clean disposal
  • Clean high-touch surfaces regularly (desks, doorknobs, phones, keyboards, elevator buttons, etc.) with EPA-approved cleaning products
  • Follow guidelines for cleaning soft surfaces, public areas, and what to do if someone in your building becomes sick with COVID-19


How should masks be worn, kept and sanitized?

Here are some recommended ways to care for, wear, and remove a mask. The CDC has several notes on use and care to keep in mind:

  • The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission
  • Masks should be routinely cleaned, using a washing machine, depending on frequency of use
  • Be careful not to touch the eyes, nose and mouth when removing your face covering and wash your hands immediately after taking it off


Where are masks required?

Some states, including New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio, as well as large cities including Los Angeles and the Bay Area, have enacted rules requiring wearing masks in public spaces. Recently Jet Blue passed rules requiring all passengers to wear masks to slow the transmission of the virus and some military installations, including Vandenberg Air Force Base are now requiring masks to enter a public building. It also is a recommended way to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the virus, even if its not required by law where you live.


Will non-surgical masks help me stay healthy?

While non-surgical face masks and face coverings can help to slow transmission rates of viruses like COVID-19, they cannot prevent a wearer from getting sick. Instead, masks offer protection for others who might otherwise become infected through the transmission of tiny droplets.


Can my employees use a homemade mask?

Yes, if they follow guidelines on making a mask that is comfortable to breathe through, and that covers their nose and mouth. There are many patterns and instructions for sewing or making a mask out of fabric and other household items.

If you have additional questions, review the CDC resources for businesses and employers on preventing spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19.


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