COVID-19: Use of masks and face coverings in the community

Information on the use of masks and face coverings in the community including how they can help protect you, different types and use at each Alert Level.

Page last updated: 17 September 2020

At 1 pm Monday 14th September, the need for physical distancing on public transport was removed. Wearing masks on domestic flights or on public transport such as trains, buses and ferries remains mandatory. 

A mask or face covering needs to cover both your nose and mouth. It is important not to touch your mask or face covering and then your face with your hands while you are wearing it. 

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How masks and face coverings can help protect you against COVID-19

Wearing a mask or face covering can reduce the risk of people who have COVID-19 spreading the virus to others.

They may feel well or have no obvious symptoms. A mask or face covering can help stop infectious droplets spreading when they speak, laugh, cough or sneeze. This is referred to as ‘source control’.

See the World Health Organization’s Advice On The Use Of Masks In The Context Of COVID-19 for more information.

Masks and face coverings can be useful if there is known community transmission and people are near each other (less than 2 metres apart). For example, in shops or other confined or crowded environments.

Masks and face coverings are only one part of keeping yourself safe and protecting others

The most important things you can do to protect yourself and others are:

  • hand hygiene
  • physical distancing
  • coughing and sneezing into your elbow
  • regular cleaning of high touch surfaces
  • staying home if you are sick and seek medical advice via your doctor or Healthline on 0800 358 5453.

The use of a mask or face covering will complement these basic hygiene measures.

Testing and contact tracing also remain critical.

Information on what public health actions to follow at each Alert Level.


Wearing of masks and face coverings at each Alert Level in the community

Masks and face coverings are most useful when there is community transmission of COVID-19.

All Alert Levels 

If people are unwell in the community with COVID-19 symptoms, they should stay at home and seek medical advice.

If you need to travel to see a health professional, a mask or face covering should be worn – for example, people with symptoms of COVID-19 who are asked to have a test should wear a mask or face covering during their travel to the appropriate testing facility.

Alert Level 4

Not many people will need to wear masks or face coverings because only those delivering or accessing essential services will be allowed freedom of movement.

Practise these basic hygiene measures

  • Keep your distance (2 metres in public) from other people.
  • Clean your hands often.
  • Sneeze and cough into your elbow.
  • Keep a track of where you’ve been and who you’ve seen (use the NZ COVID Tracer App).

It is highly recommended that you wear a mask or face covering in closed spaces where physical distancing is not always possible and contact with other people outside your bubble may occur, except:

  • From 11.59 pm on Sunday 30 August 2020 you will be required to wear a mask on buses, trains, ferries and on all flights (except where exemptions apply). Face coverings such as a bandana or a scarf can also be used if you don’t have a mask. 

Alert Level 3

You should continue to stay in your household bubbles whenever you are not at work or school. You should stay within your household bubble but can expand this to connect with close family/whānau, or bring in caregivers, or to support isolated people.

Practise the basic hygiene measures as for Alert Level 4.

It is highly recommended that you wear a mask or face covering in closed spaces where physical distancing is not always possible and contact with other people outside your bubble may occur, except:

  • From 11.59 pm on Sunday 30 August 2020 you will be required to wear a mask on buses, trains, ferries and on all flights (except where exemptions apply). Face coverings such as a bandana or a scarf can also be used if you don’t have a mask. 

Alert Level 2

You can still go to work and school, but you should practise the basic hygiene measures as for Alert Levels 3 and 4.

You may choose to wear a mask or face covering in situations where physical distancing outside your bubble is not possible except: 

  • From 11.59 pm on Sunday 30 August 2020 you will be required to wear a mask on buses, trains, ferries and on all flights (except where exemptions apply). Face coverings such as a bandana or a scarf can also be used if you don’t have a mask. 

Alert Level 1 

It is not necessary for the general public to wear masks or face coverings because there is no evidence of COVID-19 community transmission.


Types of masks and face coverings

Reusable masks – fabric, washable

Re-usable fabric masks ideally have three layers of fabric and can be purchased through retail outlets, online or you can make your own.

The Ministry of Health recommends approximately four fabric reusable (washable) face masks per family member, however you should assess how many you may need.

Disposable masks – including medical grade and non-medical masks

Medical masks are by design made for use by health care workers. These masks are designed to provide a protective barrier between the health care worker and the people they are treating to reduce transmission of infectious diseases and are used in combination with other measures such as hand hygiene and physical distancing when required. They are not reusable and must comply to AS 4381:2015 or international equivalent.

Surgical masks are intended and designed to be worn by health care professionals during health care procedures. They generally have a higher level of quality testing and are designed to reduce fluid splash and transmission of infectious diseases.

The Ministry of Health will make sure there is enough supply and distribution of medical and surgical masks for the wider health sector. Ensuring medical, surgical and N95 (or equivalent) masks are available for health care workers and those working in high-risk COVID-19 settings, such as border control, continues to be a priority.

Non-medical masks do not need to conform to any standard. This means they are not used in medical settings.

Single use, disposable masks can be purchased from retail stores such as supermarkets or pharmacies.

Single use, disposable masks for people or communities identified as needing help to obtain these are being supplied by social services agencies and community organisations.

Face coverings – including scarves and bandanas

If you do not have access to masks, face coverings such as a bandana or scarf are a suitable option. 

If possible, for extra protection fold a scarf three times before tying it. 

Dust masks – not recommended

Dust masks are not recommended as they have a one-way valve, which would allow droplets to spread if a person coughs or sneezes.


How to use a face mask safely

When wearing a mask, whether it’s 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 and dispose of it safely after use to avoid the risk of infection.

See information on How to use a face mask safely.


Exemptions on public transport — at Alert Level 2 and above

Exemptions from wearing masks or face coverings on public transport at Alert Level 2 and above are:

  • children under 12 years of age
  • a person who has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask or face covering safely or comfortably — this includes people with asthma or a disability. 

Use in schools and tertiary institutions

Children and young people at early learning services and schools

Alert Level 2

Children and young people do not need to wear masks or face coverings at Alert Level 2 because the risk of infection within early learning services and school environments is low.

Other public health control measures will be in place, including children and staff staying home if they are sick, contact tracing, and hygiene requirements.

Alert Level 3

Children and young people do not need to wear masks or face coverings at Alert Level 3 if they remain within their early learning or school bubbles of up to 20 children. This includes staying at least 2 metres away from children from other early learning or school bubbles outside.

Other public health control measures will be in place including children and staff staying home if they are sick, contact tracing, and hygiene requirements.

Children and young people on transport provided by early learning services and schools

Alert Level 2

Children and young people are not required to wear masks or face coverings on school transport at Alert Level 2. This includes buses or vans chartered or used by schools or early learning services to carry children, students and staff.

Children and young people aged 6 years and over can choose to wear a mask or face covering when they are on school transport.

Alert Level 3

School transport is unlikely to run at Alert Level 3. 

If it is operating, children and young people are not required to wear masks or face coverings on school transport. This includes buses or vans chartered or used by schools or early learning services to carry children, students and staff.

Children and young people aged 6 years and over can choose to wear a mask or face covering when they are on school transport.

Tertiary students 

Alert Level 2

Wearing a mask or face covering is optional at Alert Level 2 however, in closed spaces where it is not possible to practice physical distancing or to carry out contact tracing, students may consider using a mask or face covering. This includes, for example, in crowded spaces on campuses, or in teaching and learning situations where close physical contact cannot be avoided.

Alert Level 3

Tertiary students need to follow the same guidance or rules as other adults at Alert Level 3. Physical distancing and contact tracing requirements must be met in all situations. Wearing a mask or face covering is highly recommended in any closed space where physical distancing with others outside their bubble is not possible, for example on public transport or visiting the supermarket.

Teachers

Alert Level 2

Teachers do not need to wear a mask or face covering at Alert Level 2.

Other public health measures will be in place including children and staff staying home if they are sick, contact tracing, and hygiene requirements.

Alert Level 3

Teachers do not need to wear a mask or face covering at Alert Level 3 with their early learning or school bubbles of up to 20 children.

Outside of their own early learning or school bubble, teachers are recommended to cover their mouth and nose with a mask or face covering in situations where they are unable to maintain a distance of 2 metres from people who are not in their bubble of 20, including talking to other adults at school.

Other public health measures will be in place including children and staff staying home if they are sick, contact tracing, and hygiene requirements.


People needing visual cues to communicate

If you are someone who relies on New Zealand Sign Language, or visual facial cues such as lip reading, or are needing to communicate with someone who does, you can remove your mask or face covering to communicate, but you must maintain a physical distance of 2 metres.


Temporary removal of a mask or face covering — at Alert Level 3 and above

There are times you are outside your bubble and may need to remove your mask or face covering temporarily. Remember to wash your hands before removing your mask or face covering and putting it back on. You can remove your mask or face covering for short periods of time: 

  • if wearing a mask or face covering in the workplace would create a risk to that person’s health and safety, as determined through Health and Safety guidelines
  • if you are working on your own property with members of your household, but no staff or contractors are on site
  • if you are outside and at no stage come within 2 metres of any other bubble — you should carry a mask or face covering on you and wear it when you finish exercising or entering a closed space
  • in indoor environments where the mask or face covering is likely to get wet
  • when you are travelling in a vehicle by yourself or with other members of your household
  • when consuming food, drink or medication
  • as requested by medical or oral health professionals
  • in any situation where wearing a mask or face covering may provide a choking hazard, such as changing clothes
  • if it is raining and you cannot prevent your mask or face covering from getting wet.

At-risk people

People believed to be most at risk of COVID-19, or vulnerable, are those over 70, with heart, cerebrovascular or lung disease, diabetes or immunocompromised (for example had a transplant or taking medications that suppress the immune system). 

At raised alert levels, people at high risk of COVID-19 are advised to avoid contact with the public.

If you need to go out, and feel you are vulnerable, you may wish to discuss with your health provider whether using a medical mask is best for you. 

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
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