Austin-Travis County health official answers cloth mask questions

A graphic mask-makign tutorial
Austin Public Health now recommends wearing a cloth mask when in public as an extra measure to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin Public Health now recommends wearing a cloth mask when in public as an extra measure to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Shelby Savage/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin and Travis County residents are now encouraged to wear cloth masks in public while still maintaining social distancing measures, per an April 5 announcement. Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Mark Escott outlined the reasoning and benefits behind this new policy in an April 7 press conference, letting the public know what to expect.

Based on comments from Escott and Austin Public Health, here are the answers to some commonly asked questions:

Should I purchase a medical-grade mask?

Escott said Austin Public Health discourages residents from seeking to purchase medical-grade surgical masks or N-95 respirators. With these masks in short supply, they should be reserved for medical professionals working on the front lines of the pandemic.

“It’s critically important that folks understand that they don’t need to rush out and get surgical masks. They don’t need to rush out and get N-95s. If they have those at home, we’re really asking them to donate those to the Austin Disaster Relief Network so that we can get those to the front-line folks,” Escott said.

Instead, Austin Public Health encourages residents to obtain or create a cloth face mask. Directions and resource guides for making masks can be found online from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Austin Public Health.

What material should I use to make a mask?

Common textiles such as cotton work well, Escott said, as long as the material has a high thread count. Materials with a higher thread count provide better filtration. T-shirts, scarves and towels all make good sources of material for masks, according to the CDC.

Additionally, Escott said it is important for face coverings to be comfortable so that wearers do not feel the need to touch their face and adjust the mask while out and about.

Is it mandatory to wear a mask when going in public?

At this time, it is recommended, but not mandatory to wear a mask in the city of Austin and Travis County. However, Escott said that could change and the situation develops.

“My expectation is that in some stage we will transition this from a recommendation to a requirement,” he said.

Should I wear a mask when driving my car? What about when picking up food from a restaurant?

If you are alone in a vehicle, it is not necessary to wear a mask, Escott said. However, when grabbing food from a curbside pickup vendor or engaging with other people in person, he said it is a good idea to have one on.

How do masks help with the spread of COVID-19?

According to the CDC and Austin Public Health, masks may help prevent the spread of COVID-19 when an infected person wears one. Since many people who have the virus may be asymptomatic at first, it is a good idea to wear masks out in public even if you feel well, Escott said.

However, masks do not negate the need for social distancing, he said. Masks are an added layer of protection, but people still need to keep 6 feet away from each other even with a mask on.

Can the virus cling to a fabric mask?

So long as residents are still maintaining appropriate social distance, Escott said it is unlikely that droplets containing the virus will make contact with a mask. However, he still said that masks should be washed after outings, and that ideally people should have more than one cloth mask to use.

“Understand that the public masking may need to happen for an extended period of time, so make more than one mask,” he said.
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Southwest Austin edition. She graduated from Presbyterian College with a bachelor's degree in English and creative writing in 2017. Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio in Columbia, South Carolina before joining Community Impact in Austin.


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