Australia's face mask advice: are reusable or washable masks best, and what are the rules?
The health department recommends masks where community transmission of Covid-19 is occurring and physical distancing is difficult, and Victoria has made face masks mandatory in the state. From washable cloth face masks to reusable ones and how to wear them, here’s what you need to know
Face masks and coverings have been mandatory since 2 August across Victoria in public places as the state struggles to contain a second-wave outbreak of Covid-19.
The move to mandatory masks follows a decision by the national cabinet to update its position on the use of face masks, deciding that people should wear them where there is community transmission and where social distancing is difficult.
The announcement was a response to rising case numbers in Melbourne, which is now under curfew and stage 4 restrictions for six weeks.
Authorities say masks are likely to become an increasing feature of life as we learn to live with Covid-19.
Here is what we know about the use of masks in Australia.
What is the advice and rules on face masks?
At a national level, the health department said in advice published on 9 July that masks were recommended where community transmission is occurring and where physical distancing was difficult.
In Victoria the premier, Daniel Andrews, made it mandatory to wear masks or face coverings – including scarves or bandannas – when in public in the entire state from midnight Sunday 2 August.
There are a few exceptions: people with a medical reason and children under 12. Those who have a professional reason “or if it’s just not practical, like when running” are also exempt but they will be expected to carry a face covering at all times “to wear when you can”.
Teachers will not need to wear a face covering while teaching, but students will. Teachers and students will need to wear a mask on the way to and from school.
Andrews said “common sense” would guide how the rules were enforced. People would not be required to wear a mask when visiting a bank.
The new rules are punishable by a $200 fine.
Community transmission is occurring in Melbourne. It is also occurring on a much smaller scale in parts of Sydney. That has prompted the Queensland government to list these “hotspots”.
The health department said wearing a mask was also an “important protective measure” for people at increased risk of severe Covid-19 due to older age or chronic illness.
If you don’t live in an area where there is community transmission, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee’s advice is you do not need to wear a mask.
In NSW, the premier Gladys Berejiklian has strongly recommended people wear masks in enclosed spaces such as public transport, supermarkets or churches, but has not made it mandatory.
Why wear a mask?
The primary reason is to protect others. If you are unknowingly infected a mask will help reduce the chance that you could spread the virus to others.
What kind of face mask best protects against coronavirus?
However, authorities stress that masks are no substitute for physical distancing and good hygiene.
What are some examples of when I might use a mask?
In Victoria masks are mandatory whenever in public.
New South Wales recommends wearings masks “in situations where you are unable to social distance”.
Andrews previously listed examples such as taking a taxi or ride-sharing trip, on public transport, and at the shops.
In general the advice is to wear a mask whenever you are in a situation where it will be difficult to physically distance.
What sort of mask should I use?
There are surgical masks and cloth masks. Surgical masks – the blue ones that you would have seen at hospitals – are single-use. They cannot be washed and should not be reused. They should be disposed of in a closed bin.
“It need not be a hospital-grade mask, it need not be one of the handmade masks like I was wearing when I came in today,” Andrews said on Sunday. “It can be a scarf; it can be a homemade mask.”
The Guardian has also published a graphic which demonstrates how to make your own mask.
P2 and N95 masks are not recommended for community use.
How do I wear one?
“A mask should fit securely around the face, specifically covering your nose and mouth areas,” he says. “The mask should fit snugly on your face and be secured by ties at the back of your head or ear loops.”
It is also important that you wash or sanitise your hands before putting on and taking it off and don’t touch the front of the mask while it’s on. You should not take off your mask to talk to others. Remove it by the ear straps, not by pulling it off from the front, which could be contaminated.
The Guardian also spoke to Trish Hann, a diagnostic radiographer and clinical educator in Sydney, about how to correctly use masks and gloves.
She warns: “Don’t touch your face when you’ve got your mask on.
“It’s very, very tempting to try and adjust it, maybe pull it down and try to adjust the nose again but as soon as you touch your mask, you’re at risk of contaminating your hands and then contaminating yourself.”
Why have masks been recommended?
Victorian authorities say the change is a response to the higher number of cases.
Sutton said last week that mask use could reduce transmission by up to two-thirds: “When they are worn very broadly across a population where people can’t distance that 1.5 metres then they can make a difference.”
Is the government planning to provide masks?
The Victorian government said it has ordered 2m reusable masks and 1m more single-use masks. The federal government said it would release an additional 5m masks to Victoria. However, no further details have been given about how or when this will happen.
What about at work?
The broad advice is masks should be worn where you can’t physically distance. Some companies, such as McDonald’s and KFC, have made masks compulsory for staff; others, like Coles, Woolworths and Kmart have left the decision up to their employees.
Another thing: if you take public transport to work, Victorian authorities recommend using two masks, one for the trip to work and a second for the ride home. You would place the first mask in a zip-lock bag to be washed later if it is reusable or throw it in a closed bin if it is disposable.
The new rules in Victoria do extend to workplaces, unless your job makes it impractical. Sutton said it would not be mandatory for childcare workers to wear a mask, for example.
Previously the Victorian health department had said scarves or bandanas did not offer the same protection as face masks, but that appears to have changed given the short time given for people to access a cloth mask.
Ideally your mask should not have a valve or holes which risk you breathing out the virus if you’re unknowingly infected.
What about children?
Victoria’s health and human services department says it is not recommending children wear face masks, although “individual families can make their own decisions”.
Children younger than 12 are exempt but Sutton said that it was “a consideration” for children younger than 12.
“We say not for toddlers, but it’s a consideration for all other children,” he said. “But it is mandatory really from that high school age onwards.”
Children under two should never wear a mask due to choking risks.
Are masks mandatory?
They are in metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell shire as of midnight Wednesday 22 July and in the entire state of Victoria from midnight Sunday 2 August, but no other states have mandated them.
In NSW, which is also grappling with a Covid-19 outbreak, authorities have said masks should be worn where physical distancing is not possible.
The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has strongly urged people to wear masks in enclosed spaces like on public transport or while grocery shopping, as well as for retail workers, or when going to religious services, or in areas where there has been high levels of community transmission.
However, she stressed masks were not compulsory in these situations.