Chi's homemade mask. Photo by Lydia Chávez

‘If anyone is fixated on 30 feet, they are missing the point.’


There’s just no shortage of things to be furious about these days. 

We’re in the midst of a pandemic and cursed with inept, reactionary leadership; bands of armed yahoos have taken over statehouses with impunity; police in Minnesota casually snuffed out the life of George Floyd, accused of the grand crime of buying a pack of smokes with a bogus $20 bill, leaning on his neck as he screamed for his mother and family and pleaded for his life before dying in the gutter — and, now, nationwide protests have devolved into fiery and destructive melees, with police often escalating the violence and even targeting members of the media.

Over the weekend, witnesses described organized looters targeting businesses in San Francisco. And, boom, we have an 8 p.m. curfew.  

So there is, again, no shortage of things to be furious about. 

Being mandated to wear or carry a mask out-of-doors during a plague shouldn’t be one of them.

Josue Hernandez opening Dying Breed/Mission Skate Shop (Photo was taken from outside). Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was Thursday. Mayor London Breed announced a new, San Francisco-exclusive timeline for re-opening the city. The ongoing rupturing of the five-county (formerly six-county; bye, San Mateo) consortium of health officers is no small deal. But that’s not what got the attention — or the opprobrium. No, it was the jarring announcement that San Franciscans are now required to put on a mask when walking, biking, or running within 30 feet of one-another that seemed to draw all eyes. 

How the real world will react to this measure remains to be seen. But the level of indignation and this-is-the-last-straw! sentiment online was notable. 

And that’s understandable, if not particularly smart. We’ve all altered our personal habits a great deal over the past several months; if you’re not among the (disproportionately black and Latino) people with no choice but to head into work every day and get sick — and die — this seems to be one more indignity impeding our way of life. 

Everyone in the city is sporting a haircut from a 1970s baseball card — and now this? It’s a global pandemic and 100,000 Americans are dead — but how can I be made to put on a mask while jogging if someone passes two car-lengths away? This is the last straw!  

Mission Local reporter Julian Mark takes a serology test at Parque Niños, April 28.

If you’re wondering what the science is behind 30 feet, relax — there isn’t any. 

“There’s no perfect science behind 30 feet,” says Dr. Jake Scott, an infectious disease physician and assistant clinical professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. But, he goes on, there’s no perfect science behind the six feet of distance we’ve all been urged to physically separate from one-another, either. 

“If anyone is fixated on 30 feet,” Scott continues, “they are missing the point. The point is: If you’re within six feet of people, you will have a significantly lower risk of infecting other people or infecting yourself if you have a mask on. Is that risk eliminated at seven feet? No.” 

Where does six feet even come from? Scott’s UC Berkeley counterpart, Dr. John Swartzberg, notes that any viral particle 10 microns or greater is heavier than air, and will likely fall to the ground within six feet. Smaller particles — and there are many — will float in the air. “There’s a whole range. You can draw a bell-shaped curve.” 

So that’s where six feet comes from. In Europe and the Spanish-speaking world, people are recommended to stay two meters apart, which is about six-foot-six or one Draymond Green’s-length. It’s not as if there’s a difference in the airspeed velocity of an unladen coronavirus particle on this continent or that — it’s all just probabilities and estimations and communicating to people in the terms they know. 

San Franciscans who watched cop shows with crime labs featuring three-dimensional holograms were disappointed to learn our actual crime lab was a rickety warehouse with a feral cat infestation. The situation isn’t as dire with regard to the data we use to craft COVID-19 proclamations, but there’s a lot fewer three-dimensional holograms than you’d hope for. (Blessedly, there are no cats). 

“We are improvising based upon some principles of virus transmission. It’s mostly based on historical data — which is imperfect,” says Scott. “People’s expectations are too high. People expect us to give them the best recommendations based on the best science and the scientific evidence. But we haven’t had time to nail down all the science. We haven’t had time to establish that data.” 

But the science we do have, Scott continues, informs us that near-universal mask-wearing saves lives. And, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s just not so counterintuitive — or such an imposition — to be asked to wear a mask out-of-doors. 

“Just wear a mask!” says Scott, his patience growing thin. “It’s so simple!” 

Sarah Larson opened her shop Often Wander on May 18 for pick-up. Photo by Julian Mark

But 30 feet — that’s crazy, right? 

Well, sort of. Not as crazy as the online commenter who wondered (in jest, let us hope) if mask manufacturers had contributed to Mayor Breed’s coffers. (Of note, Big Mask could probably use more sway in this country, not less. And this order, like all health orders, was delivered by Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón. Politics, like plastic particles, gets into everything, and San Francisco’s city-county setup allows for politicians to wield no small amount of influence over ostensibly independent officials. But elements of the mayor’s office have complained bitterly behind the scenes about the gradual pace of re-opening dictated by Aragón; it would be a stretch to say that he is in lockstep with the mayor or wholly subservient to her.).

Could you be infected with COVID-19 at a 30-foot range? Every infectious disease specialist your humble narrator spoke with said: you could. But you could also be struck by lightning in a movie theater. 

But, as Scott noted, fixating on 30 feet is counterproductive. It also reveals that the complainant hasn’t read the health order. 

The purpose of this order is not to allow police to arrest you at 29 feet, 11 inches. Rather, it’s to give you time to put on your mask by the time you get close to other individuals (left unsaid: If you can avoid getting close to people, you should do that. And wash your hands.). 

Here’s the text from the order

The 30 feet (10 yard) distance is used here to give people adequate time to put on a Face Covering before the distance closes and the people are within six feet of each other, which puts them at greater risk for transmission of the virus. As more activities are permitted, more people will be near each other without much advance warning, making wearing a Face Covering essential when people are within 30 feet.

This applies to people on streets or other public rights-of-way, who are “walking, running, biking, otherwise exercising, standing, or engaged in transportation such as using a motorcycle, skateboard, moped, or scooter.

If you’re sitting on a blanket in a park, and you’re six feet (or two meters or one Draymond or whatever) from the next blanket, then, no, you don’t need to be wearing a mask. 

San Francisco’s dictum, which allows for mask-free picnics in the midst of a pandemic, is actually less restrictive than what many, many more people are required to do in Los Angeles. There, you pretty much have to wear a mask out-of-doors full-stop — and it applies to everyone over age 2, while San Francisco’s order is for those 12 and older. 

Counterintuitively, by being more permissive, San Francisco may have also riled people up more. The simple message of “just wear a mask” has been diluted and the arbitrary distance of 30 feet has been highlighted and mocked and denigrated. 

The city was “trying to make accommodations,” says UC San Francisco’s Dr. George Rutherford. “But more accommodations make it more complex.” 

And complexities rile people up. But, Rutherford continues, “I think people just want to be riled up.” And, he notes, “Tomás doesn’t write these. The City Attorney writes these. That’s why they come off as so legalistic. But this is reasonable. This is as reasonable and well-worded as a legal document is gonna get.” 

The United States is falling apart. Everything is going wrong at once; it feels as if the warranty has expired. There is so much to occupy us. There is so much work to do. There are so many problems to fix. 

Having a mask on hand and wearing it when near people is so easy. This is such an easy problem to remedy right now. 

“Wear a mask in public and we’ll get through this faster,” says Scott. “It should be so simple.” 

It really should.

***

The point of wearing a mask when you’re far from folks, is actually so that you’ll be wearing a mask when you’re close to folks.

Keep local reporting alive. If you haven’t already, please contribute today.

Follow Us

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation

41 Comments

  1. Wrong! Those that are at high risk should wear masks or stay home. The recovery rate is 99.9%. Obviously it is you that is angry!
    We Americans that have common sense are not wearing masks.

    1. My source of information are biovirologists, epidemiologists, and other doctors. Not angry “We Americans” posters (with exclamation points)

    2. jfc, just because it has a recovery rate that high doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and others from getting sick… like what the fuck is wrong with you???

    3. Yeah, you seem like a well adjusted person and not like an angry Karen at all. Could you and the moron kids you are raising drink bleach like your orange leader is advising? It would be less GED idiots like yourself floating around out there.

  2. > Wrong! Those that are at high risk should wear masks or stay home.

    No. The mask isn’t to protect you. The mask is to protect everybody else.

    You might be infected and spreading the disease without knowing it — because lots of people are contagious before they have any symptoms, or never have symptoms at all. If you go out where other people are and don’t wear a mask, you are putting everybody else at risk. Please do your part for everyone else’s safety, and just wear a mask.

    > The recovery rate is 99.9%.

    That sure would be nice.

    There have been over 16000 confirmed deaths in NYC alone. There are only about 8 million people in NYC, so that is 0.2% of the entire population. If every last person in the city got the disease, a 99.9% recovery rate would mean “only” 8000 deaths, half of the actual number.

    In reality most people haven’t gotten the disease, so the fatality rate is higher still. Current estimates range from 0.4% to over 1%.

    1. Your numbers aren’t strictly correct. There is a difference between case fatality rate and infection fatality rate. The most recent CDC estimate of COVID mortality rate is about 0.3% accounting for about 35% of infected people who are asymptotic and another ~40% who only show mild symptoms and don’t seek medical help.

    2. Thanks for this. The other issue is folks need to adopt a sense of community and a sense of we are all in this together. So wearing masks is a sign of community caring and personal responsibility.

  3. This is an interesting article. However, all the points you make lead me to an opposite conclusion. The world is indeed falling apart and there is so much that we are NOT doing. Yet our leaders focus on unnecessary, impractical and heavy handed measures and don’t pay attention to what actually matters.
    Imposing too many mandates simply confuses people and also leads to noncompliance as is happening with the mask issue now.
    BTW, a lot of people now seem think that wearing a ridiculously thin and flimsy piece of cloth around their face somehow gives them immunity to come close to others. I’d rather be more than 6ft away from a person not wearing a mask than 2ft away from someone wearing a nominal one.
    We shouldn’t be feeling good because we have slightly more freedom than LA. LA is not exactly a good example since their cases keep soaring despite their draconian mask mandates.

    1. So, the infectious disease physicians from Stanford, Cal, and UCSF plainly stating “wear a mask” all led you to the “opposite conclusion”? You’re just too damn smart!

      JE

      1. I am indeed smart and also hold a PhD from one of these places you listed (if that is what impresses you).
        I believe that these experts are overstating the importance of mask. There is no evidence that masks are the most important measure to stop COVID. Places that saw improvement with masks were also doing a lot of other things in addition to wearing masks. So it is impossible to know the importance of masks relative to other measures. There are also other places like New Zealand that pretty much eradicated the virus with imposing masks.
        I am all for wearing masks when within 6ft of other people and indoors (you can’t pay to go to a supermarket without a mask) but let’s not pretend that we know more than we do and start doubling down on measures that are simply taken too far.

        1. *Correction of typo: There are also other places like New Zealand that pretty much eradicated the virus without imposing masks.

        2. LA — 

          Dr. Ben Carson has proven to us that expertise does not necessarily transfer from one field to another. Congrats on the doctorate, but the sources quoted in this story were infectious disease specialists. That doesn’t make them infallible, but it does make the burden of proof higher when, essentially, saying, “Nah, not for me.”

          If you read the story, you’d note that the purpose of telling people to wear masks when they’re not so close to each other is to ensure they’re wearing masks when they’re close to each other. That’s mostly it.

          Everyone can dance and sing about why that’s not reasonable but at some point this, too, is not reasonable.

          JE

          1. Joe,
            I am not claiming that I am an expert on public health or infectious diseases (very far from it). My PhD comment is a bit of a joke since you seemed to indicate initially that I am not smart enough to question the wisdom of these experts from prestigious institutions, which I disagree with. We should absolutely question everyone and everything.
            The bottom line for me is this. We know that there is low risk of virus transfer outdoors. A lot of experts agree that distancing and washing hands are more important than mask wearing. Forcing people who exercise outdoors to wear masks leads to discouraging them from exercising. We know that obesity and other related diseases which are a direct outcome of not being active enough are leading causes of bad outcome from COVID. We need to encourage people to be more active not less so. And finally, the mental toll that this has taken on us is so big that adding more restrictions just dilutes the message and make people less likely to comply. All of these factors put together make the mandate of making people wear masks within 30ft of others not worth the hassle. Not to mention that the policy itself is confusing and not well stated. I would have far preferred “keep your distance from others outside and if you cannot wear a mask within 6ft”, which was the initial message.

          2. Joe, while i agree with you, i find your attitude snarky and smug in this post. Lecturing people rarely works. Saying your experts are superior to others can come off as patronizing..Demanding people do things often has the opposite effect. If you want to preach to the choir, your article works..if you want to convince those who disagree, the attitude hurts…Some people just arent going to listen, no matter how much you berate them. But if you do berate them expect them to use that against you..

          3. Joe,

            Also, you say that “the purpose of telling people to wear masks when they’re not so close to each other is to ensure they’re wearing masks when they’re close to each other. That’s mostly it.”

            Well, this does not make any sense as a policy. It’s like telling people that they are not allowed to drive cars because some people drive irresponsibly and that is dangerous. Imagine that!

          4. That is an imperfect analogy.

            It’s more like telling people they have to wear seat belts at 0-5 mph so they’ll be on when the car is going 50 mph.

            JE

  4. Not to get too Trumpian, but… I blame the mainstream media for my outrage! This headline in the Chronic ignited my fury: “Major new San Francisco health order requires masks or face coverings outside” It wasn’t until a few hours later when I read the actual order from the City that I realized the Chronic had fanned the flames, and the order was not draconian after all.
    Thanks ML, for not inflaming the situation with incendiary headlines!

  5. It just feels arbitrary and somewhat authoritarian. So you judge the risk of contracting or passing the virus on the sidewalk against the politics of government dictums and its not surprising that some will feel the latter outweighs the former. Its actually probably a healthy sign that some are not wearing. Wouldn’t it be spooky if we were all wearing masks at all times?

    Also, people constantly fiddle with their masks, wear them inside out, and re-wear them. So there are some risks involved also. If we are preventing spread by wearing masks we are also creating lots of medical waste that then sits on our faces.

  6. Weird. Pretty much everyone in the Mission is wearing masks yet the comments suggest it should be about 50/50. My conclusion: the troll army is on the move.

  7. Thanks Joe, that was great. Here’s a few more points to consider.

    1. Masks have been worn for thousands of years to ward off Evil Spirits, and to invoke Good Spirits for protection against the Unknown and the Uncertain. What more evidence do people need?

    2. Unless you are black or brown, if you are not wearing a mask, the odds are quite low that the empathetic and anti-bias trained SFPD will shoot you with rubber bullets, ram you with their vehicle or put their knee on your neck. To be sure, the police don’t take “30 feet” as gospel.

    3. Some people think the 30 foot rule is a mask itself, covering up the real effect of the order which is to be wearing a mask at all times when you are outside. Believe me, if this were the intent, City Officials would have stated that plainly and would not resort to convoluted legalese. The order itself very clearly states that 30 feet gives cyclists time to stop and put on a mask when approaching someone (and vice-versa). Elementary logic and the last sentence of the order may appear to those without the requisite law degree or BS degree, to be functionally the same as wearing a mask at all times, but as infectious disease expert Rutherford says, it’s as “reasonable and well-worded as a legal document is gonna get.”

    4. Speaking of joggers, remember universal face covering is meant to be a symbol of solidarity and altruism, according to Scripture (the Lancet). As that jogger approaches, if you are not an irredeemably selfish covidiot, you will be immediately concerned for the jogger’s well-being because you may be a potential asymptomatic carrier and without a mask could very well infect and kill that jogger. Has there ever been a more effective symbol? If you don’t believe it, check out the comments on Next Door or ask the maskless armed protesters in Michigan.

    5. Thanks for supplying the “best science” references. People should recognize that the Trump Administration is led by not only Science, but blue ribbon winning Science. All those contrary studies, not cited, may deserve honorable mention, but they are not the Best.

    6. Thanks for reminding me I don’t live in L.A. It made my day.

    7. Some covidiots may be angry because they think universal masking is a way to cover up the city/state/nation’s failure to conceive and execute a basic testing, tracing and quarantine program. Remember? We weren’t going to reopen without having a “robust” program in place. Who needs it? So much simpler to shut up and put on the damn mask.

    8. As the Oracle of Stanford says, wearing a mask is simple and it saves lives. Let the non-STEM students with sinus conditions or other moderate respiratory or heart conditions complain that he doesn’t indicate what kind of mask, and whether the lives saved are inside or outside. The whiners should all stay inside or sit in a 6 foot circle in Dolores Park. Perhaps next time the Oracle speaks, he will cite the benefits of wearing a mask all day, especially while outside jogging, cycling, exercising or walking the dog.

    9. Only conspiracy theorists get angry about government mandates that seem to come out of the blue and which are neither justified or explained clearly. I know this sounds ridiculous, but they believe they’ve been lied to by the authorities for over 50 years. Obviously they don’t trust the authorities, but is trust really necessary to defeat the disease?

    10. Are you making a case for Draymond Green to be SF Chief Medical Officer? Great idea! As a Defensive Player of the Year, no one knows the value of clear, concise and timely communication better than Draymond.

  8. Joe,

    As long as qualified places of study are going to be bandied about…

    Columbia University study, ‘…The U.S. could have prevented roughly 36,000 deaths from COVID-19 if broad social distancing measures had been put in place just one week earlier in March..’
    https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/21/860077940/u-s-could-have-saved-36-000-lives-if-social-distancing-started-1-week-earlier-st

    Not to say that wearing a mask doesn’t give a significant advantage to not getting infected, but it is a close second.

    You mention parks & walking, MIT called it out, Mass Transit is our most likely contact for transmission.
    https://web.mit.edu/jeffrey/harris/HarrisJE_WP2_COVID19_NYC_13-Apr-2020.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2aEwknuTkIdWxC5izjG233sLQkc24nA1FemJ9bqIa-yqODEfq7PE61NjQ

    Yet MUNI has not physically imposed ‘Social Distancing’ blocking off seats, and is only requesting the wearing of masks.

    If only essential workers should be using MUNI, then wearable tags to said persons, photo id prominent, like a press pass.
    Make it easy to request & acquire with proof of essential service. Then enforce it.

    Have read the replies to your article, that is the state on our streets, everyone has an opinion, it leads to their action or inaction.

    Best analogy was the seat belt, get caught not wearing it, not only a ticket but a moving violation. Continue to ignore it, lose your license.

    1. Hello Michael Cheney—MUNI has indeed instituted social distancing on buses. Only so many people allowed per bus, and you need to sit apart I have seen the 14 and 49 zoom by stops with people if the bus already has a couple dozen folks sitting in it however spread out. From the official web page: To maintain social distancing on Muni, operators may skip stops if their vehicles become too crowded. We apologize in advance. Link: https://www.sfmta.com/travel-updates/covid-19-muni-core-service-plan

      1. Just not so, even the local news station show people entering the rear doors not social distancing.

        As for the observation of complying with social distancing while on the bus, since you appear to be an SFMT a person, please provide proof since all buses have cameras on board. It is got not good enough just simply trust the people will do it blocking off the seats as required by the CDC and recommended APRA is not being done..

        No physical changes have taken place inside Muni buses Except for some red marks near the driver but you were told to stand behind. Again recommendations not backed up by any physical manner.

        Nice try from the SFMTA, still way short

  9. It is not “easy” to be behind anything that covers nose and mouth if you are claustrophobic or prone to anxiety, nor is it comfortable or relaxing to run or even walk at a rapid pace while constantly looking ahead to see if someone else is approaching or will appear from a door, garage, construction site, etc., thereby requiring me to pull up and pull down a mask. I exercise to calm anxiety, and in the past few days have not been able to while outdoors. Of course I am happy to wear a mask in the grocery store and hopefully soon on an airplane to get out of SF for along time, but don’t assume that wearing a mask is comfortable for everyone (and I have tried a variety of styles to date).

      1. SF Doc, what’s this, a medical professional with no compassion? Who ever heard of such a thing?!? That’s like a police officer who reverts to violence to manage a crowd.

      2. If you’re going to steal lyrics from a Tom Waits song, at least give him proper credit.

    1. Nina….what?? When I don’t manage my anxiety correctly, I have anxiety attacks that wake me up at night, feeling that I am 100% at deaths door. Full on gasping for a breath, dry heaving, crying, racing heart beat, thoughts of DOOM. Do NOT tell me that I’m not obligated to wear a mask, when I’m out of the house, during a pandemic spread by simply exhaling. What nonsense

  10. We get it Joe – you think you are better than everyone else – enjoy your miserable life.

    1. No, Justin. It’s precisely because I *don’t* think I’m better than everyone else that I’m gonna follow the Health Order and the opinions of the experts and wear the goddamn mask.

      JE

  11. The lengths people will go to, trying to rationalize not wearing masks. Yes, the authorities have been wishy washy, yes it can be uncomfortable. But it really is not a big deal, and if everyone were doing it, things would be sooooo much safer.

    wearing masks can cut the incidence of cases by as much as 80% according to scientific models:
    https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/05/masks-covid-19-infections-would-plummet-new-study-says

    Great article Joe.

    I am seeing more and more people in the MIssion with masks. But still as much as a third without. Wear your f-ing seat belts!

    As for joggers, I get it. How about jogging sans-mask at 5 AM, and not mid-afternoon running by me on the sidewalk? Problem solved.

  12. RE: “It’s not as if there’s a difference in the airspeed velocity of an unladen coronavirus particle…”

    Our President says Asian coronavirus particles are faster than European or African ones.

  13. Where is the sense of community, bravery, and strength in adversity that Americans are said to possess. Are we REALLY rebelling against mask wearing, when it’s so SIMPLE and has been proven to help control spread, significantly?? Holy cow! There’s real problems to be advocating against.

    The long-term effects of having COVID are STILL being researched, and none of it is positive or pointing to ‘herd immunity’.

  14. Mask wearing is a joke. No body follows the rules unless they half to in public places. Half the time they are around their chins and the rest of the time they are off. People touch all kinds of infected items but they touch their masks the most. Soooo dumb! If you say you wear them in groups of people you know you lie. Time to take them off!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *