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6 Times You Have to Wear A Face Mask—And 3 Times You Don’t

Medical pros weigh in on when you *really* need to cover your nose and mouth with a mask and when you can safely skip doing so.

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Young African Woman Wearing A Surgical Face MaskLordn/Getty Images

Why you should wear a mask

Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing face masks in public wherever you can’t maintain social distancing measures, only a handful of states have hard and fast rules, so it’s not surprising there is a lot of confusion about when—and if—you need to wear a mask. The CDC recommends you wear a mask to prevent transmitting the novel coronavirus to others, even when you don’t feel sick. That’s because you may have the virus and can pass it on to others before you experience any symptoms. To cut through the confusion as to when face masks are required, Reader’s Digest consulted two infectious disease doctors to pinpoint the most important times you need to cover up—and when you can safely go without. Don’t have a mask? Here’s how to correctly DIY a face mask.

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Woman with face mask shopping at supermarketFG Trade/Getty Images

Wear a mask: Shopping for groceries

Since you’ll likely be passing other shoppers in narrow aisles or stand closer than six feet from the cashier as you check out and grab your bags, it’s best for all involved to cover up. In fact, you may not be allowed into a store without a mask as a few stores, including Costco and Stew Leonard’s, have rules in place that customers must wear facial coverings, while many other chains encourage their customers to wear them. Whole Foods Market is even going as far as offering free masks to customers at the entrance to their stores (though they are only required in states where facial masks are mandated).

“People should wear face coverings in public to prevent transmission of the virus to other people in the community, not necessarily to protect themselves from contracting the virus,” explains Jill Weatherhead, MD, an assistant professor of adult and pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Individuals who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic can potentially spread the virus unknowingly to others in the community if they’re not wearing a face covering.” Find out how many times you can wear your face covering before washing it.

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selective focus of sportsman in medical mask exercising with barbell in gymLightFieldStudios/Getty Images

Wear a mask: At the gym or exercising outdoors in populated areas

While the good news is that coronavirus doesn’t appear to be transmitted through sweat, you still need to wear a mask when you’re exercising at the gym. (Yes, we know it gets hot and uncomfortable.) Why? When you get your heart rate up and start breathing heavily and more forcefully, the respiratory droplets (that spread coronavirus and other illnesses) in your breath will travel farther, says Sandra Kesh, MD, the deputy medical director and infectious disease specialist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, New York. “If an infected person coughs in an enclosed area, like a gym, where the same air is constantly circulating, those particles can spread all throughout the room,” she says.

You should also don a face covering if you’re jogging, walking, or biking on a well-trafficked trail or sidewalk during your al fresco sweat session. Just be sure you can still breathe well enough to get enough oxygen, Dr. Weatherhead warns, otherwise stay inside or find a quieter area for outdoor recreation. If you’re looking to buy a mask, check these places where you can still find them.

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Hairdresser makes beautiful hairstyle, during COVID-19valentinrussanov/Getty Images

Wear a mask: At the salon or spa

As hair and nail salons and spas begin to reopen in parts of the country, some states including Connecticut, New York, Virginia, and Wyoming, have made masks mandatory while you’re getting a haircut or mani. But even if it’s not required by your state or your salon, you should wear a mask any time you can’t maintain that six-foot-or-more distance, Dr. Weatherhead says.

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Young happy women talking and laughing while drinking coffee together in coffee shopPhynart Studio/Getty Images

Wear a mask: At restaurants

Wear your mask before and after eating, because even when tables are spaced six feet apart, “there is still an interaction between friends and family at the table as well as with restaurant staff,” Dr. Weatherhead says.

Dr. Kesh adds that the act of talking alone may be enough to spread the virus under the right circumstances. “Studies have shown that respiratory droplets can come from even just regular talking,” Dr. Kesh says. She points to a study out of China where a diner in a restaurant didn’t know he was infected with COVID-19. “Several people—some even quite far away—contracted the virus,” Dr. Kesh says. “We assume that the spread came as a result of the airflow in the restaurant.”

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Believers wearing protective masks are social distancing in...KONTROLAB/Getty Images

Wear a mask: Attending religious services

In one well-publicized case, a 122-member Wisconsin church choir that met for two and a half hours for practice over the course of a week in March resulted in a whopping 87 percent of the choir becoming ill. This may have been due to the proximity, the frequency of contact, the closeness of contact, or the force of the respiratory particles as they were spread through singing. If you decide to attend in-person worship services, keep your distance, and wear a face covering, even if you only mouth the words to “Amazing Grace.” The virus can spread from person to person directly—and possibly through the ventilation system, too, according to emerging research. These 20 photos define the age of social distancing.

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Two girls with masks in the park during pandemiclechatnoir/Getty Images

Wear a mask: Gathering with friends and extended family

Making a bank deposit? Delivering groceries to a neighbor? Working at an essential business? No matter what the reason for being around other humans who don’t live with you, “I recommend face covering,” Dr. Kesh says. “Even in areas where there has been a downslope of the infection curve, it’s important to keep up these habits to reduce the risk of exposure.” That goes double if you are immunocompromised in any way. Wearing a face mask isn’t the only daily habit that should change after coronavirus.

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Man hiking along trail in forest on foggy morningThomas Barwick/Getty Images

Don’t wear a mask: Exercising outside in unpopulated areas

As long as you’re sure you will be alone, say, on a remote hiking trail or in the very early hours of the morning, “outside exercise is one scenario where you don’t need to wear a facial covering, as long as you can guarantee you won’t pass others,” Dr. Kesh says. But what about if the path isn’t totally remote, but you plan to keep your distance? With the force of breath (yours and the other person’s) so strong as you exercise and the wind potentially at play, your best bet will be to wear a cloth mask—yes, even if you the others pass people that are more than six feet away.

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Do it YourselfGravity Images/Getty Images

Don’t wear a mask: At home by yourself or just with family

Since we’re nearly inseparable from the crew we’re quarantining with, we’re breathing shared air nearly 24/7. No need to worry about wearing a mask if you’re at home or in your car with your immediate family, unless someone is infected with the virus. Then the sick individual should remain isolated as much as possible and wear a face covering when they’re around others, according to the CDC’s guidance for caring for a sick household member.

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Woman cough in arm prevention.dragana991/Getty Images

Don’t wear a mask: If you have trouble breathing or experience shortness of breath

There are certain populations who should never wear a mask. “Children less than two years old, people who are unable to take off their masks without assistance, and persons with shortness of breath should not wear face coverings,” Dr. Weatherhead says. For everyone else, though, it’s crucial to remember: “One-third to one-half of all people never develop symptoms of coronavirus, but may still be spreading it to others. Everyone is fair game for contracting COVID-19,” Dr. Kesh says, so when in doubt, wear a mask—and be sure to avoid making these 11 common mistakes with your mask.

For more info on everything to do with the virus, see our comprehensive guide.