News Coronavirus Experts say it’s still a good idea to carry a mask, even if they’ll no longer be mandatory soon
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Experts say it’s still a good idea to carry a mask, even if they’ll no longer be mandatory soon

NSW mask rules
The NSW government is set to scrap mandatory mask rules in some indoor settings. Photo: Getty
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Although Australia is opening up, the new Omicron COVID-19 variant has highlighted the need to remain vigilant, and that includes using face masks.

New South Wales is set to scrap the mask mandate for most indoor settings by December 15, however, experts say it’s still worth wearing a face mask despite the freedom not to.

“We don’t need to have a knee-jerk reaction,” Premier Dominic Perrottet reiterated on Monday.

“We need to have a proportionate and balanced response to the situation that’s in front of us as our health officials obtain more information, both at a state and Commonwealth level.”

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet is set to scrap the mask mandate in most indoor settings. Photo: AAP

UNSW Associate Professor Holly Seale researches the sociological aspects of infectious disease prevention, including non-pharmaceutical strategies like mask mandates during the pandemic.

In her opinion it makes sense to relax the rules when things are good, but stressed that individuals can – and should – still make their own decision about wearing a mask.

“If we push too hard right now in a setting where people are not feeling at risk, that could potentially backfire on us,” Professor Seale told The New Daily.

“Let’s work with the ebbs and flows of this pandemic and be mindful that, while we can enjoy this period where we’re moving away from stricter restrictions, it’s also important to remind the community that they can’t go right away right now.

“We may see into the new year that we have to readjust ourselves again around the use of masks, and about whether or not we’re going to need lockdowns, and so forth, depending on what happens with other variants.”

Don’t leave your mask at home … yet

The conventional wisdom throughout the pandemic has been that masks are most effective when worn collectively.

However, when the mask mandate is relaxed in NSW in mid-December, there’s still some benefit to going it alone.

“Certainly we have seen a drastic decline in COVID cases, and that’s great,” Professor Seale said.

“That’s really a reflection of the fact that we’ve been able to get vaccine coverage to the level we’ve had.

“But it is still out there and I certainly think we’ve got to be thinking about there are still people in the community who are vulnerable.”

Professor Seale pointed to healthcare settings and public transport as the main places where people should keep up their mask habit.

In these settings, wearing a mask as an individual will still slightly reduce your risk of inhaling COVID-19 droplets, and it’ll also have a big effect on preventing your own droplets from spreading to those who are more vulnerable.

Under the planned changes in NSW, masks will still be mandatory on public transport, as well as in airports and for unvaccinated indoor hospitality staff.

NSW face mask rules
Masks will still be mandatory on public transport, where physical distancing is tricky and ventilation tends to be poor. Photo: AAP

Professor Seale said mask wearing should be normalised, even where it’s not mandatory.

For example, it would still be worthwhile to wear one in a crowded shop with poor ventilation, regardless of what others are doing.

People with even mild symptoms should also keep a mask on, she added.

Professor Seale’s research found that in the absence of government mandates, it was things like a sense of shared responsibility or perceived pressure from family, employers or the media that contributed to mask uptake.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at the UNSW’s Kirkby Institute, said Omicron has highlighted the need for booster shots, as well as these kinds of non-pharmaceutical measures.

“We must also address safe indoor air, and keep using masks in indoor spaces,” she said.

Professor Seale encouraged everyone to carry a mask in their pocket or handbag, or just leave a couple in their car.

“Gone are the days of the fluffy dice,” she said.

“Now it’s about having a surgical mask dangling from your mirror.”