A doctor explains.
No matter where you live, by now you’ve no doubt heard that wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. If you’re unable to stay home, and must be around other people, the CDC and similar public health organizations around the world recommend both the wearing of masks and also maintaining a 6-foot (or 2 meter) social distance from other people.
What about when you’re on a motorcycle, though? Do you need to wear a mask if you’re on your bike? What about if you’re wearing a full-face helmet? Even before the pandemic struck, some riders, such as myself, chose to wear balaclavas under our helmets for various reasons. Among other things, they help keep the inside of your helmet from getting gunked up with sweat, hair products, sunscreen, and makeup. In the winter, they can help keep you warm, and moisture-wicking ones are great for summer riding comfort, as well. However, they’re a choice and not a requirement anywhere, as far as I know.
The surgical and cloth face masks that most medical authorities advise wearing to stop the spread of COVID-19 are a different matter, however. Rules and recommendations vary by health authority, so you should check with your local health department to see what is legally required and also what is advised for your health. Just because a mask is not legally required certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t wear one if you prefer to do so.
However, wearing a mask underneath a full-face motorcycle helmet seems like it might be overkill. In fact, back when obtaining personal protective equipment was almost universally difficult for medical providers in the U.S., the Journal of the American Medical Association actually recommended wearing full-face motorcycle helmets with visors as a valid alternative to medical-grade PPE, in a pinch. The consensus seemed to be that while it wasn’t ideal, it was at least something. Welding masks and ice hockey face shields started showing up as alternative options around the same time, for the same reason.
Obviously, good full-face motorcycle helmets offer ventilation and airflow. While that makes them good for riding your bike, that also means that they’re far from perfect tools to prevent the spread of viral droplets. However, all the other types of masks that aren’t N95-grade also don’t do a whole lot to block tiny coronavirus particles. It’s not difficult to see why the idea of some type of physical barrier might be preferable to none, even if they’re not completely ideal.
The thing about motorcyclists is, we’re everywhere. We’re in every profession, have every type of job, and many of us ride to and from those jobs every day. It should come as no surprise that a doctor who’s also a rider has publicly considered the question of wearing a mask under a full-face helmet during the current pandemic.
“Surgical masks restrict your breathing. This can be fatal at high speeds when your adrenalin kicks in. Adrenalin will cause your heartbeat to double depending on your speed. This, in effect, will make you breathe faster and these masks will restrict your breathing and give your heart a hard time. Next, your brain will also suffer due to lack of oxygen until you blackout,” Dr. Tommy Lim told MotoPinas.
He went on to add that several other factors, both predictable and not, could contribute to difficulties breathing with a mask under a full-face helmet. Heat, humidity, a sudden accident up ahead that brings traffic to a hot and sticky crawl, you name it.
For our safety, both while riding and functioning in the world off our bikes during the pandemic, carrying our masks tucked safely away in a pocket is probably a good idea. It’s also probably best to clean our hands after taking our helmets off, and before putting those masks on our faces. Current CDC recommendation is to either wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer that has greater than 60 percent ethanol or 70 percent isopropanol content. Carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer on our bikes is probably the most practical thing to do, if we want to put masks on our faces right after taking our helmets off.