coronavirus pandemic

Airbnb hosts found offering isolation retreats in defiance of lockdown rules   -2%

Airbnb hosts who have advertised properties as suitable to self-isolate in during the coronavirus pandemic have been labelled “dangerous and irresponsible” by the Government.

Over 600 health workers contracted COVID-19   22%

More than 600 health workers, who are battling on the frontline against the coronavirus pandemic, have test positive for the coronavirus, Milliyet newspaper has reported.

Wisconsin governor delays election, prompts court challenge   40%

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Monday moved to postpone the state's presidential primary for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting a court challenge and adding to confusion about … Click to Continue »

Liverpool reverses plan to furlough staff after backlash  

Apologizing to its own fans, Liverpool on Monday reversed a decision to apply its furloughed non-playing staff for the British government's job retention scheme during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the … Click to Continue »

The Latest: Prime Minister Johnson in intensive care unit   33%

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can … Click to Continue »

Coronavirus leads South Florida PBS to pull bid with Miami-Dade Schools to run WLRN  

Citing the coronavirus pandemic, South Florida PBS has withdrawn its bid with the Miami-Dade County school district to manage WLRN, South Florida’s only public news radio station. The company announced … Click to Continue »

Coronavirus has Floridas K-12 schools online only next week. Is this the new normal?   20%

It’s not just Netflix and YouTube that have been crashing since folks were relegated to staying home during the coronavirus pandemic. Online learning platforms have also been overwhelmed, thanks to … Click to Continue »

Coronavirus, stay-at-home orders spike Miamis thirst for another commodity: tap water   -10%

When Elli Miriam Hernandez-Montero heard that her son’s preschool might be closed temporarily due to the coronavirus pandemic, she bought an inflatable water slide to keep him entertained. It has. … Click to Continue »

Palm Sunday services held without public; some on rooftops   17%

Pope Francis celebrated Palm Sunday Mass in the shelter of St. Peter's Basilica without the public because of the coronavirus pandemic, while parish priests elsewhere in Rome took to church … Click to Continue »

Kosovar Media Urged Not To 'Intensify' Tensions During Coronavirus Crisis  

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) is calling on media in Kosovo to refrain from “intensifying tensions” during the health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ex-Envoy Bildt Questions Serbia And Hungary's Use Of 'China Card' Amid COVID-19 Crisis   10%

One of Europe's most influential former diplomats has taken aim at perceptions that Europe has done little to help the Balkans as they grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and puts China's contributions in perspective.

Wimbledon 2020 cancelled due to coronavirus pandemic  

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on Wednesday decided to cancel the historic Wimbledon Championships, in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Covid-19: Matthew Perry channels Chandler Bing's sarcasm amid coronavirus pande...   50%

Using famous ‘Friends’ character Chandler Bing’s expression of hiding pain through sarcasm, actor Matthew Perry on Saturday used the reference to talk about coronavirus pandemic.

Spiritual guidance to tackle self isolation and panic   17%

Self isolation and social distancing due to coronavirus pandemic might overwhelm many and also give rise to fear and stress. Here’s a guide to overcome it spiritually.

'Just cancel it' - mystic manga foreshadowed 2020 Olympics' demise   19%

With the announcement that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the coincidence has led to Akira, a remarkably prescient cult Japanese manga series, trending on Japanese social media with fans hailing its mystic powers.

Deal shows virus-hit airlines can sell debt but cost steep  

A bond deal by South Korea’s biggest airline showed that while carriers pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic can still sell debt, they will need to pay a steep price.

Boeing to offer voluntary layoffs to employees to tide over coronavirus fallout,...   15%

Boeing Co is set to offer buyout and early retirement packages to employees, two people familiar with the matter said on Wednesday, a bid to mitigate the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Atlantic Politics Daily: When COVID-19 Comes to Trump Country  

It’s Tuesday, March 31. Backlogs at private laboratories have ballooned, making it difficult to treat suffering patients and contain the pandemic. Read the latest from our science and technology reporters Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer.

In the rest of today’s newsletter: When the coronavirus pandemic comes to Trump country, politicization can only last so long. Plus: What’s the deal with Oscar Health and COVID-19 testing?



(Patrick Semansk / AP)

Thus far, the coronavirus outbreak has ravaged blue states and Democratically-leaning cities more than red states and rural areas (though the illness is spreading quickly). President Trump has spoken about the pandemic through a highly partisan lens, and has expressed belief that state and local governments haven’t been happy enough with the administration’s help, my colleague Peter Nicholas, our White House correspondent, writes:

Trump, though, is sensitive to anything he sees as ingratitude. If his administration sends planeloads of ventilators—a national resource—he wants a thank you, not a complaint about why it didn’t come sooner.

But as the virus spills widely across more red states, more Republican governors must figure out how to navigate the White House’s shifting moods.

But as the virus spills into more red states, Republican governors must figure out how to navigate his shifting moods. (That hasn’t stopped the president from taking credit for any positive development and parroting false news of progress to his base.)

The federal government can only do so much to enforce national restrictions, even if an aggressive one would help slow the pandemic’s spread. If the president wanted to enact a nationwide lockdown, akin to those in China, India and the UK, the way the federal government is designed prevents him from being able to do so.

On the economic front, drastic times call for drastic measures. Rather than shipping out one-time $1,200 checks to save the economy, here’s one idea for the Federal Reserve to stave America off long-term economic disaster, Annie Lowrey writes: Throw money out of helicopters. Really.

—Kaila Philo



(Getty Images / The Atlantic)

+ The president has promised a website devoted to coronavirus testing. He said Google would help; instead, it was built by Oscar Health, an insurance company closely tied to son-in-law Jared Kushner.

+ There’s some amount of political genius in the support the president has managed to maintain amid national calamity, Frida Ghitis argues: He’s somehow “transmuting his calamitous failures into political gold.” Here’s how.

+ Prisons are vulnerable environments for a pandemic. The new coronavirus will be a nightmare for those who might’ve been wrongly convicted.

You can keep up with The Atlantic’s most crucial coronavirus coverage here.


Today’s newsletter was written by Kaila Philo, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to

Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.

Even the Most Versatile Actors Cant Find Work   -25%

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Lauren O’Brien was juggling three jobs: She’s an on-camera actor; a comedian and house performer at the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, California; and, along with her musician husband, Matt Commerce, the owner of a small events-booking business. All three, she told me with a sigh over the phone this week, “collapsed at the same time,” when California issued a statewide mandate to shelter in place. Working from home isn’t applicable when crews can’t gather for shoots, theaters are closed, and events are canceled in droves.

The couple confronted their new reality quickly: They slashed their spending, asked to defer payments on their credit cards, and planned to talk with their landlord. “We went from a difficult discussion to tears to freaking out to ‘Okay, what do we do, then?’” she said, adding that they’re also the parents of a 3-year-old son. “We’re just kind of on a wing and a prayer now.”

The pandemic is hitting every part of the economy, but when it comes to the entertainment industry, actors in particular are paying a steep price financially and creatively. The vocation has always come with financial uncertainty, but today’s acting community had been working in a flourishing landscape. The number of television shows airing every year surged to a new peak in 2019 thanks to streaming services, and more productions meant more opportunities to be cast. Pilot season—traditionally a months-long stretch from January to April when actors flock to Los Angeles to audition for new shows—had lately morphed into an all-year-long process. And between creator-focused crowdfunding sites such as Patreon and social-media platforms, performers had been finding more and more outlets for expressing their art.

[Read: The pandemic is hitting one part of Hollywood especially hard]

Yet, for even the most versatile actors, the pandemic has cut off the revenue streams they need to pay the bills: The service and hospitality industries have come to a standstill, and those who found side gigs outside those traditional categories—such as in teaching, event planning, or stand-up comedy—can’t go to work. David Sedgwick, an actor who also works as a substitute teacher and tour guide at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, told me that all three of his sources of income “vanished overnight.” “My work life has been totally disrupted,” he wrote to me in an email this week.

Several organizations dedicated to actors’ welfare have set up emergency funds since the outbreak. But raising money may prove to be a challenge. Tom Viola, the executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which set up an emergency-assistance fund, told me that it’s hoping to collect $2 million. “We are optimistic,” he wrote via email. “Earlier this week, we were thrilled to announce a $1 million matching grant from more than 20 Broadway producers. However, it’s going to take a lot of theater lovers digging into their hearts—and their wallets—in an already trying time for us to reach this goal.” What’s more, the money raised through such funds may be “nominal” at best, O’Brien said, when it comes to months of unemployment.

Brittany Curran, who’s been searching for her next gig since the series on which she starred, Syfy’s The Magicians, was canceled in early March, told me via email that the pandemic is “heightening” her job-search anxiety. “Most actors aren’t stars,” she wrote, “aren’t millionaires with enough money in savings to weather the storm.”

Actors, therefore, are looking for temporary gigs—and for many, including O’Brien, the internet provides them. She and her husband started a YouTube channel called The Hootenanny, on which they live-stream music classes geared toward children every weekday morning, both as a way to keep their son occupied and as a way to entertain families who also have restless toddlers at home. With every upload, O’Brien encourages viewers to donate $5 to her Venmo account, but says she understands if her audience, like her and her family, can’t spare the money. “If people are in the same situation as us, don’t worry about it,” she says. “Just tune in; keep your kids busy.”

[Read: Say goodbye to movie theaters]

They’re not the only ones migrating online while being out of work. “There’s an intense amount of collaboration,” Viola observed. “Actors, musicians, writers and other creatives are using Facebook, Instagram, Zoom conferencing and other electronic methods to build creative communities online.” All the performers I spoke with have noticed a spike in internet activity as well. “I don’t love the pressure to write King Lear, but as someone who has been creating my own content for a long time, it’s interesting to see everyone, even actors who are usually on TV shows, suddenly want to make their own stuff,” the actor Ashley Clements wrote me in a Twitter direct message. (Clements primarily produces and stars in web content, while supplementing her work with commercial gigs.) “I think we’re going to see a lot of podcasts, vlog-style one person shows, songs, and quarantine shorts come out of this time, as actors try to stay sane.”

Indeed, coronavirus content has become its own subgenre, given how the pandemic has come to dominate headlines and conversations. There’s an appetite for public-service announcements, for commentary—and even for parody. Tess Paras, an actor who stars on Amazon’s Just Add Magic, assembled a lineup of her performer friends for a video spoofing the viral A-lister sing-along to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” rewriting the lyrics with fellow actor Lilan Bowden to draw attention to—and condemn—the racist rhetoric around the coronavirus. “I think social media has become an even livelier place right now,” she wrote me via Twitter. “We’re all doing bits to connect with each other and quell our collective anxiety. Honestly being able to laugh helps!”

Rebekka Johnson, a comedian and cast member on the Netflix drama GLOW, which halted production on its fourth season following the outbreak, is also working on making coronavirus content. She plans to collaborate remotely with her industry friends to come up with a script about social distancing that they can each shoot at home and piece together into a comedic PSA she’ll post on her Instagram. “I guess we’re just trying to still be creative, but for the greater good,” she explained over the phone. Not everyone’s dipping into COVID-19–specific creations, Johnson added in an email: She’s noticed that many of her fellow actors, like O’Brien, have begun hosting online classes on subjects such as musical improv and voice-over work to help pay the bills.

Still, not all online content is created equal. The influx of A-listers onto the same platforms threatens to overshadow these actors, drawing away the valuable attention they need to monetize their work. “It’s kind of hard to compete when, you know, [the Coldplay frontman] Chris Martin wants to put on a concert,” O’Brien pointed out. “It is really neat [that everyone’s logging on], but then there is a lot of noise, and it is hard to stand out.”

[Read: Celebrities have never been less entertaining]

And standing out will be the key to dealing with the potentially protracted aftermath of social distancing. Actors are used to enduring slumps between gigs, and industry emergency-assistance funds and government-instituted relief packages will help in the short term. But Johnson, who’s being paid for two weeks of work while production is halted on GLOW, anticipates a swell of funding campaigns for actors like herself if the pandemic proves to be disruptive for too long. “As an actor, it’s feast or famine,” she said. “So this was the time that I was going to make money to be able to sustain for that long period of time when you’re sort of figuring out what your next job is. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that unknown is very scary.”

Sedgwick, too, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about his financial future for the time being. He has unemployment insurance—actors may qualify through unions such as SAG-AFTRA depending on their state—but “this kind of situation has the potential to be a tipping point,” he explained. “I’ve googled ‘bankruptcy law in California’ more than once.” And Curran said she’s “saved enough money to not be worried for a little while,” but fears that if productions don’t resume in time, she’ll be ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild’s health-insurance program, which depends on actors hitting a wage minimum every year. Actors need auditions to make it to the next “feast,” as Johnson put it; without them, they’ll have to create their own opportunities.

In that sense, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped Hollywood; it’s just forced the industry to hit pause. Crews have stopped gathering, studio gates have closed, red carpets sit unrolled, and the release calendar has been left in disarray. But even though traffic has slowed on sets and stages, art doesn’t have to: Curran said she’ll be shooting “the lowest of low-budget short films” in her house and backyard. And O’Brien, on top of creating daily lesson plans for The Hootenanny, will get started on a long-gestating project. “I have been talking for, like, three years about writing a one-person show,” she said, laughing. “The silver lining is, I do have time to write now.” In other words? The show will go on.

The Books Briefing: Books for Feeling Better   -12%

Reader, it’s rough out there. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, one of the most frightening and frustrating aspects of the disaster is the fact that no one knows how long it will be before the crisis is resolved. As humans, we’re used to stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it’s hard to make sense of an experience without knowing where you are in that plotline.

But when life seems to lose its narrative structure, books can be a comfort. Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, are reassuring not only because of their happy endings but also because of the way they uphold social conventions, even while acknowledging their fallibility. Isaac Asimov’s work, from what’s known as the golden age of science fiction, presents optimistic visions of the future in which machines and the universe itself are governed by laws people can identify and understand.

The space-opera comic-book series Saga sends its characters on dangerous adventures of moral complexity, yet always stays grounded in the values of family, forgiveness, and compassion. Hanan al-Shaykh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights highlights the classic tales’ most hopeful themes—oppressed people winning their lives back and literature teaching empathy. And Barbara Cooney’s picture books give young readers and their parents a vision of history that’s based on caring and quiet confidence in what is right.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

What We’re Reading

(Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab / Shutterstock)

A writer who is good for you
“No other author goes with such casual intimacy as [Austen] … into the vulnerable spot where society touches the root of self. And few authors are at the same time so quietly fearsome and so intensely consoling.”

📚 Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
📚 Emma, by Jane Austen
📚 Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin
📚 Jane Austen: A Life, by David Nokes
📚 “The Janeites,” by Rudyard Kipling

The sprawling, empathetic adventure of Saga
Saga relies on a stable of heroes, antiheroes, and villains who span the spectra of age, class, gender, race, and sexual orientation … [The series] stands out as a profane, glorious ode to compassion and equality.”

📚 Saga, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

Isaac Asimov’s throwback vision of the future
“So many popular science-fiction or speculative-fiction stories that have been given new life today are dystopian … Asimov is perhaps most useful as a counterpoint, a writer whose work resonates because it is out of step with the kind of future that readers have become so used to imagining.”

📚 I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
📚 Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
📚 The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov

The humanist message amid the violence of One Thousand and One Nights
“The women in these stories in fact do find their own way—again and again, we watch as the powerless become powerful, and the strong become weak.”

📚 One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling, by Hanan al-Shaykh

Barbara Cooney’s picture-book lessons in moral courage
“Her singular vision of young Americans and her unique ideas about how to write for them make her books more relevant to Americans today—and perhaps more necessary—than ever before.”

📚 Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney
📚 Island Boy, by Barbara Cooney
📚 Eleanor, by Barbara Cooney

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. Her current comfort book is Persuasion, by Jane Austen.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

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Everyone Thinks Theyre Right About Masks   25%

Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.

Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.

Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”

[Read: Grocery stores are the coronavirus tipping point]

To be clear, every expert I spoke with for this piece told me that it’s still mostly safe to spend time outdoors. If anything, they said, such forays should be encouraged for the sake of our mental health. Distance and ventilation matter, and outdoor spaces offer plenty of both. Distance is harder to maintain in bustling cities like New York, but the point remains that any risk lies in the density of people, not in some thick viral miasma suffusing the air.

That’s the good news. The matter of going outside, however, is just the simplest and most easily resolved part of a larger and more vexing set of questions: Does the coronavirus travel through the air? If so, how can we escape it? Should we all be wearing masks? The details of our new uprooted lives hinge on the answers. And the answers are complicated.

Is the new coronavirus airborne?

Confusingly, in public-health circles, the word airborne has a technical meaning that’s not just “carried through the air.” When people are infected with respiratory viruses, they emit viral particles whenever they talk, breathe, cough, or sneeze. These particles are encased in globs of mucus, saliva, and water. Bigger globs fall faster than they evaporate, so they splash down nearby—these are traditionally called “droplets.” Smaller globs evaporate faster than they fall, leaving dried-out viruses that linger in the air and drift farther afield—these are called “aerosols.” When researchers say a virus is “airborne,” like measles or chickenpox, they mean that it moves as aerosols. When the World Health Organization asserts that the new coronavirus is “NOT airborne,” it’s claiming that the virus instead spreads primarily through the close-splashing droplets, which either land directly on people’s faces or are carried to their faces by unwashed, contaminated hands.  

[Read: Why the coronavirus has been so successful]

Such messaging is “really irresponsible,” argues Don Milton, an expert in aerosol transmission at the University of Maryland. The scientific community doesn’t even agree about whether aerosol transmission matters for the flu, so “to say that after three months we know for sure that this [new] virus is not airborne is … expletive deleted,” he says. Milton and other experts who study how viruses move through the air say that the traditional distinction between big, short-range droplets and small, long-range aerosols is based on outdated science. Lydia Bourouiba of MIT, for instance, has shown that exhalations, sneezes, and coughs unleash swirling, fast-moving clouds of both droplets and aerosols, which travel many meters farther than older studies predicted. Both kinds of glob also matter over shorter distances: Someone standing next to a person with COVID-19 is more likely to be splashed by droplets and to inhale aerosols.

The question, then, isn’t whether the coronavirus is “airborne” in the tediously academic way the word has been defined. As the journalist Roxanne Khamsi puts it, the virus is “definitely borne by air.” The better questions are: How far does the virus move? And is it stable and concentrated enough at the end of its journey to harm someone’s health?

[Read: The coronavirus’s unique threat to the south]

A handful of studies have offered preliminary answers. One team of researchers blasted virus-laden fluids into a rotating cylinder to create a cloud of aerosols. They found that the virus remained stable for several hours within that cloud, raising fears about its ability to persist in ambient air. But as the researchers have noted, the study’s experimental setup was artificial. It doesn’t reflect “what’s occurring when you’re just walking down the street,” says Saskia Popescu of George Mason University, who specializes in infection control and who was not involved in the study. “It’s more akin to medically invasive procedures like intubation, which run the risk of aerosolizing the virus, and are unique to the health-care setting.”

A second study suggests that the coronavirus can be released into the air in less dramatic ways. Joshua Santarpia and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found traces of the coronavirus’s RNA—its genetic material—in rooms occupied by a total of 13 COVID-19 patients, most of whom had only mild symptoms. The RNA was on obvious places such as bed rails and toilets, but also on harder-to-reach spots such as ventilation grates, window ledges, and the floors beneath the beds. The RNA even lingered in the air; using air-samplers, the team detected viral RNA floating more than six feet away from the patients, and even in the hallways just outside the patients’ rooms.

This isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. Finding viral RNA is like finding a fingerprint at a crime scene—the culprit was once there, but might be long gone. So far, the Nebraska team has failed to detect live, infectious virus in its air samples. Santarpia told me that further tests are under way, and results will be released soon.

If the Nebraska team does find infectious particles, it would mean that even mildly symptomatic people can expel SARS-CoV-2 into the air, and that the virus can travel at least the length of a hospital room—a claim supported by a few other studies. Even that, though, would not guarantee danger. Are those far-spreading virus particles concentrated enough to infect another person in the same room? How many virus particles does it even take to launch an infection? How far does the virus travel in outdoor spaces, or in other indoor settings? Have these airborne movements affected the course of the pandemic?

These questions have no answers yet. To get those answers, “you’d have to expose animals to different quantities of airborne viruses, see if they get infected, and relate that to measures of the virus [in places] where people are infected,” says Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard. “This is the type of stuff people will work on for years, but no one is going to find out for the moment.”

Is it safe to go outside?

Even if coronavirus particles can move through the air, they would still diffuse over distance. “People envision these clouds of viruses roaming through the streets coming after them, but the risk of [infection] is higher if you’re closer to the source,” says Linsey Marr, who studies airborne disease transmission at Virginia Tech. “The outside is great as long as you’re not in a crowded park.”

In February, scientists in Wuhan, China—where the coronavirus outbreak originated—sampled the air in various public areas, and showed that the virus was either undetectable or found in extremely low concentrations. The only exceptions were two crowded sites, one in front of a department store and another next to a hospital. Even then, each cubic meter of air contained fewer than a dozen virus particles. (No one knows the infectious dose of SARS-CoV-2—that is, the number of particles needed to start an infection—but for the original SARS virus of 2003, one study provided estimates many times higher than the levels detected in the Wuhan spaces.)*

These particles might not even have been infectious. “I think we’ll find that like many other viruses, [SARS-CoV-2] isn’t especially stable under outdoor conditions like sunlight or warm temperatures,” Santarpia said. “Don’t congregate in groups outside, but going for a walk, or sitting on your porch on a sunny day, are still great ideas.”

[Read: This is how we can beat the coronavirus]

You could tie yourself in knots gaming out the various scenarios that might pose a risk outdoors, but Marr recommends a simple technique. “When I go out now, I imagine that everyone is smoking, and I pick my path to get the least exposure to that smoke,” she told me. If that’s the case, I asked her, is it irrational to hold your breath when another person walks past you and you don’t have enough space to move away? “It’s not irrational; I do that myself,” she said. “I don’t know if it makes a difference, but in theory it could. It’s like when you walk through a cigarette plume.”

Indoors, experts’ opinions start to diverge. Consider, for example, the grocery store—one of the last vestiges of public life. There, Santarpia is far more concerned about touching shared surfaces than breathing shared air, and he makes sure to sanitize his hands before he leaves. Marr said that she tries to go when it’s less crowded, although that’s obviously harder in a big city. Bourouiba’s best advice is to always keep as much distance from other people as possible, and she adds that the onus is on stores to improve their ventilation or limit the number of concurrent customers. Stores must also devise ways of protecting the people at greatest risk: the cashiers and the workers stocking shelves.

Then there are shared spaces like hallways, stairwells, and elevators in apartment buildings. Elevators pose the highest risk, Bourouiba told me, since they’re enclosed boxes with limited airflow. For stairwells and hallways, she advocated a commonsense approach: “If you hear neighbors going out, and there are 10 people in the corridor right now, maybe wait and go later.”

As for interconnected indoor spaces, such as apartments that share ventilation: “I don’t want to freak people out about their ventilation systems [to the point where] they’re covering their vents,” Marr said. “Just open the windows.” Bourouiba agreed. The calculus might change if you’re in a first-floor unit next to a heavily trafficked street, but in general, “I would encourage people to open their windows and create drafts, once or twice a day.”  

[Read: The dos and don’ts of social distancing]

Apartment life “is not zero-risk, but it’s relatively low-risk, and people shouldn’t be on lockdown to the point that they never get fresh air,” Bourouiba said. The biggest risk—touching contaminated surfaces such as doorknobs and keypads—can be addressed with soap or hand sanitizer. As far as the air goes, “the likelihood of an airborne spread situation—where there’s somebody in the apartment next to you, and you walk by their apartment, and you somehow pick up an aerosol and get sick—seems really small to me,” Santarpia said. “If you know you’re in a shared space, follow social-distancing guidelines, clean your hands, and try to avoid touching your face.”

If people have no choice but to be in a riskier space, such as an elevator or a grocery-store line, the last resort might be to wear a mask. But this issue has become the most divisive one of all.

Should I wear a mask?

For health-care workers, the answer is obviously yes. But which masks? The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both state that doctors and nurses can use basic surgical masks when treating COVID-19 patients, switching to the more advanced N95 respirators if they’re carrying out procedures that might create aerosols. But such recommendations assume that the virus isn’t generally airborne. Because it might be, health-care workers should err on the side of precaution by wearing N95s and using even better respirators for more dangerous procedures, argues Lisa Brousseau of the University of Illinois at Chicago. All of this equipment is in short supply, but health-care workers at least deserve to know what the ideal measures are.

For everyone else, the debate is even trickier. For months, the WHO, the CDC, and most public-health professionals advised that people don’t need to wear face masks unless they have COVID-19 or are caring for someone who does. At the same time, these experts have noted that health-care workers are in dire need of masks, which are running out because of strained supply chains and surging patient numbers. On February 29, the U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, tweeted, “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

If masks are limited, conserving them for the people who need them most makes sense. But that message was lost amid the confusing claim that masks somehow protect health-care workers but are useless for everyone else. In recent weeks, that simmering tension has come to a boil. Opinion pieces, news stories, and scientific papers have urged Western countries to use masks widely, emulating the example set by East Asian countries. Masks are mandatory for anyone entering a supermarket in Austria, and anyone leaving their house in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the U.S., the CDC changed its guidelines, recommending that Americans wear cloth or fabric face coverings in public. Many public-health experts have pivoted, too. “I went with the public-health message at the beginning: People don’t need masks,” Marr said. “But I’ve changed because of the mounting evidence that it does seem to be spreading through the air.”

[Read: America needs plasma from COVID-19 survivors now]

If the virus is traveling through the air, then it seems intuitive that masks would block it. But the evidence for this is all over the place, especially for surgical masks, which are more common than N95 respirators, and which don’t form a tight seal with the face. Several past studies have found that face masks could reduce the risk of flu-like infections, slow flu transmission in households, and even reduce the spread of SARS, especially when combined with hand-washing and gloves. Other studies have been more equivocal, finding that masks provide no benefit, small benefits, or benefits only in conjunction with measures like hand-washing. “Airflow follows the path of least resistance, and if it won’t enter through the mesh, it can come in from the side,” Bourouiba said. “There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that [surgical masks] are protective against the smallest droplets.”  

There’s still a good case for masks, though, even if they can’t stop viruses from getting in: They can stop viruses from getting out. A new study shows that people who are infected with milder human coronaviruses release fewer viral particles when they wear surgical masks. “I’ve been slightly dismissive of masks, but I was looking at them in the wrong way,” Harvard’s Bill Hanage told me. “You’re not wearing them to stop yourself getting infected, but to stop someone else getting infected.” This might be especially important for SARS-CoV-2, which can spread without immediately causing symptoms. If people are infectious before they fall sick, then everyone should wear face masks “when going out in public, in one additional societal effort to slow the spread of the virus down,” says Thomas Inglesby of the John Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Some commentators have argued that countries that have thus far succeeded in curbing their COVID-19 outbreaks have widely used masks. But this relationship isn’t as perfect as it might appear. China advocated mask use early on and still struggled to contain the disease. Japan uses masks widely but is now seeing an uptick in cases. Singapore reserved them for health-care workers but still flattened the curve of infections. Many successful mask-using countries relied on other measures, such as extensive testing and social distancing, and many were ready for the pandemic because of their prior run-in with the 2003 SARS epidemic.

In Asia, masks aren’t just shields. They’re also symbols. They’re an affirmation of civic-mindedness and conscientiousness, and such symbols might be important in other parts of the world too. If widely used, masks could signal that society is taking the pandemic threat seriously. They might reduce the stigma foisted on sick people, who would no longer feel ashamed or singled out for wearing one. They could offer reassurance to people who don’t have the privilege of isolating themselves at home, and must continue to work in public spaces. “My staff have also mentioned that having a mask reminds them not to touch their face or put a pen in their mouth,” Bourouiba noted.

Or masks could have the opposite effect. Whenever Santarpia sees someone wearing a mask in public, that person is constantly touching it, futzing with it, and pulling it down to wipe their mouth. “Masks are really uncomfortable, and no one wears them correctly,” he said. “Rather than being protective, you’ve put something on your face that makes you want to touch your face more, or to touch the outside of the mask, which is infectious. You’ve created a hazard for yourself that’s right on your face.”

Many public-health experts have voiced similar complaints, based on their own personal experience. But it’s hard to find studies showing that novice mask-users touch their face more, or that such behavior increases the risk of infection. Regardless, if people misuse masks, why not train them? Countless videos and memes have been made to show people how to wash their hands properly, and the WHO already has a good instructional video about using masks.

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The debate is somewhat moot right now, because there simply aren’t enough masks for medical professionals, let alone everyone else. No matter their opinions on widespread mask-wearing, everyone I spoke with for this article agreed that health-care workers should get dibs on any existing medical masks. This might well be why public-health officials have been so loath to recommend mask-wearing more broadly: Hoarders have already begun to exhaust the dwindling supplies. Even so, “policy shouldn’t be made to accommodate a lack of the supply,” Bourouiba said. “It should create the impetus to generate that supply.”

In the meantime, citizens (and, unfortunately, many health-care workers) will have to make do with MacGyvering their own alternatives. A few studies suggest that homemade cloth masks are less effective than proper medical ones, but are still better than nothing. In one experiment, a surgical mask filtered 89 percent of viral particles from volunteers’ coughs, a tea towel blocked 72 percent, and a cotton T-shirt blocked 50 percent.** In general, thicker materials are better than thinner ones, Marr said, and a tight fit across the face is important. If people use makeshift masks, they should thoroughly wash them afterward. And most of all, they should remember that homemade masks are not fully protective. They’re a last-ditch measure to be used in situations when social distancing isn’t possible. “It’s not like ‘I’m wearing [a mask] and now I can talk to everyone,’” Bourouiba said.

The mask debate is so intense because both the stakes and the uncertainty levels are so high. “We’re trying to build the plane while we’re flying it,” Hanage said. “We’re having to make decisions with quite massive consequences in the absence of secure data. It’s a nightmare for your average cautious public-health professional.”

The coronavirus pandemic has moved so quickly that years of social change and academic debate have been compressed into a matter of months. Academic squabbles are informing national policy. Long-standing guidelines are shifting. Within days, an experiment that’s done in a hospital room can affect how people feel about the very air around them, and what they choose to wear on their faces. Masks are a symbol, yes, but not just of conscientiousness. They’re also emblematic of a world that is changing so quickly, no one has time to take a breath.  

* This article originally misstated the estimated number of viral particles in an infectious dose of SARS.

** This article originally misstated the percentage of viral particles that could be filtered by a surgical mask, a tea towel, and a cotton T-shirt.

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