COVID-19: Use of face masks in the community

Information on the use of face masks in the community for COVID-19 in Alert Levels 1 & 2.

Page last updated 28 May 2020

COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, is spread by droplets. When an infected person coughs or sneezes without covering their mouth and nose, droplets containing the virus spread a short distance and can settle on surrounding surfaces.

COVID-19 is mostly spread following close contact with people who have the virus and have symptoms. You may also get infected if you touch surfaces or objects contaminated with droplets and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes.

Staying home if you’re unwell, maintaining physical distancing and basic hygiene measures remain the most important way to stop the spread of infections, including COVID-19.

Basic hygiene measures include:

  • Hand hygiene – frequently wash your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, then dry them thoroughly. If you are unable to access soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser containing at least 60% alcohol. If using sanitiser, ensure that you use enough to cover your hands and rub hands together until dry.
  • Cough and sneeze etiquette – sneezing or coughing into the crook of your elbow or covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then putting the tissue in a bin and cleaning your hands (as above).
  • Avoiding touching your face – hard surfaces can be contaminated with infectious droplets. Hands can be contaminated after contact with these surfaces. If you need to touch your face, clean your hands first.
  • Cleaning surfaces and frequently touched items – clean high-touch surfaces and items (for example door handles and phones) frequently with an appropriate cleaning solution to reduce transmission of germs in general.

General information on face masks and COVID-19

Face masks are one part of Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures used in health care settings. They are a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) used to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. They must meet appropriate standards for use in health care, be worn correctly and in the appropriate context.

Non-medical face masks, including home-made facial coverings or cloth masks, vary greatly in composition and design. They are not required to meet the same safety standards that are used in health care to prevent the spread of diseases.

There is no convincing evidence one way or other to require the use of non-medical face masks for healthy people in the community to protect from COVID-19. There are potential benefits and potential risks with such use. Countries are taking different approaches based on their current COVID-19 context.

Non-medical masks could provide an additional element of protection in preventing someone who is infectious with COVID-19 spreading this infection to others. This is through potentially ‘catching’ large infectious respiratory droplets produced by the wearer, so they do not spread further. This is called ‘source control’.

Non-medical masks are not proven to effectively protect the person wearing them from becoming infected by others. They are therefore not a substitute for physical distancing and basic hygiene measures. Some of the reasons for this include the types of materials used for the masks and how they are worn.

The COVID-19 context in New Zealand at Alert Levels 1 and 2

  • The risk of exposure to COVID-19 for most people is now considered low and manageable by sticking to the core public health actions: staying home if unwell, maintaining physical distancing and basic hygiene measures, including frequent hand washing.
  • Our small number of active COVID-19 cases are restricted to individual households or known clusters and are well controlled; those that are still potentially infectious to others must follow strict isolation requirements until they no longer present a risk.
  • People who have been in close contact with COVID-19 cases are at risk of developing COVID-19. If they do develop COVID-19, they present a small risk of potential transmission to others before they develop any symptoms, as well as if they develop obvious symptoms. To manage this risk, we have strict isolation requirements for those who have been identified as close contacts of COVID-19 cases and may have been exposed to the virus.
  • The highest risk of exposure to COVID-19 outside of health care settings is for those involved in border management of people coming into New Zealand from overseas (including our quarantine and self-isolation facilities). Medical face masks are recommended for use in these situations to help prevent workers from being infected with COVID-19 if they come into contact with someone who is infectious.

Advice on community use of face masks in New Zealand’s current COVID-19 context

Based on the New Zealand context of COVID-19 and the range of control measures we have in place (including staying home if unwell, maintaining physical distancing and basic hygiene), current advice on the use of face masks in the wider community is as follows:

  • Healthy people in the community are not currently required to wear a face mask for protection from COVID-19 in New Zealand. In our current environment, the potential benefits of requiring masks to be worn by all healthy people in the community are not felt to outweigh the potential risks. This may change if we see increasing community transmission in the future.
  • Healthy members of the public may choose to purchase and wear a face mask, or make their own. If you would like to wear one for your own comfort, please ensure you use it safely, as there are risks associated with incorrect use of all types of face masks. See advice about how to use a face mask safely.
  • If you are unwell with new or worsening symptoms of an acute respiratory infection (cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, runny nose or temporary loss of smell, with or without fever), you should stay home and call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 or your health care provider. If you have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and are advised that you need to be assessed in person, you will be asked by a health care worker to put on a medical face mask to reduce the risk of spreading any infection. They will supply you with one and tell you how to use it correctly.
  • If you have COVID-19 or are a close contact of a COVID-19 case, you will be isolating in your home or another location until you no longer present a risk of potentially spreading COVID-19 to others. You will be provided advice and support on how to safely access urgent care (in the rare circumstance it is needed) to prevent potential spread of infection to others. This may include the use of a medical face mask in certain circumstances. 
    Note: for close contacts of COVID-19 cases, this advice includes additional precautions to account for the small risk that they may have developed COVID-19 and are able to pass it on to others while they have few or no symptoms.

This advice on use of face masks in the community will be updated if new evidence or guidance from the World Health Organization emerges, or we see a change in COVID-19 disease patterns in New Zealand (for example, increasing community transmission).

Review of science and policy around face masks and COVID-19

Read the review of science and policy around the use of face masks, commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Chief Science Advisor

In this section

  • If you choose to wear a face mask – one you purchase or make yourself – you need to know how to use it safely. This includes how you put it on, what to do while wearing it, how to take it off and how to handle it safely after use to avoid the risk of infection. Read more
Back to top