The Science Guy on why and when we need to be masking up—and where he's planning to travel when the pandemic is under control. August 20, 2020
Bill Nye is frustrated. "The science is so well understood for what to do during a pandemic," he says. "It's so well figured out, and we're ignoring it all. It's not working for me." So, he's doing something about it, collaborating with Airband on a collection of science-themed washable, reusable masks with filters, and sending the proceeds to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is working on strategies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.We sat down to check in with Nye and hear him break down—in the elementary terms he's so known for—why we should be wearing masks, when he's wearing them and when he's not, and where he dreams of traveling when the pandemic is finally under control. (Which would be sooner, he says, if we all just wore a dang mask.)
For those who may still be hesitant to mask up, can you explain how masks work and why they're so important in this moment?
Masks keep a great many particles from your breath from getting into the air, and they keep a great many particles in the air from getting into your nasal passages. They're a filter, like a coffee filter only for particles. But the thing that I want everybody to keep in mind is it literally works both ways—and when I use the expression literally, I mean literally, actually, for real. So you want to keep particles carried on water droplets from the breath of people who are sick around you from getting into your lungs. And you don't want particles from you getting into the air of the people around you. This is what people generally call public health. It's what my parents would call common sense, right? But as they often pointed out, common sense is not that common.
People are leaving their homes much more often than they were in late spring and early summer to get outside, walk, bike, and even go to the beach. I'm going to throw a few scenarios at you so you can let us know how we should be approaching mask-wearing. You are going on a hike and it's a fairly empty trail. When are you wearing your mask?
All you have to do is wear it when you see somebody approaching, like when they get within, say, 30 feet. I recommend you tie a string—a piece of cord or even a shoelace—to the ear straps of your mask, so that you can let it hang around your neck to carry it and easily put it on when you see someone.
If you were doing the same thing on a busier trail or you arrived and the trail was much busier than you expected, what would your advice be?
Wear it the whole time. And if you’re finding it hard to breathe, slow down. Dying is a big price to pay for trying to keep up with what you might call scout's pace.
If you were biking around in a city, where you may get near pedestrians or other bikers, what’s your advice?
Let's talk about me. I am an old man hurtling toward death, so when I'm biking on the flat of Ventura Boulevard here in Los Angeles, where all these cars are parked and people are constantly coming out of restaurants with takeout food, I wear the mask the whole time. Then, when I turn and go on Coldwater Canyon, there's a long line of houses, maybe three L.A. city blocks, and I still wear the mask the whole time. But then it breaks into a kind of rural area right within the city limits of Los Angeles, with coyotes and deer everywhere. I let the mask drop. Last night, I caught up with a guy on the Coldwater hill—it's like 1,000 vertical feet or something—and I pulled over, put my mask on, passed him, and when I got about 100 feet ahead of him, I took my mask back off. And when I say take it off, it hangs around my neck. I’ve got a string that hooks on my helmet so I can pull the mask up and drop it down easily. When I got to the stoplight at the top of the hill, right at Mulholland Drive, just like in the movies, I put the mask back on because the car next to me had its windows down. I'm very aware of that. So the answers with biking is that it absolutely depends.
Talk to me about this string contraption.
I bought some nylon cord in tons of different colors—gray, black, red. I use a sheet bend knot. I recommend it to everyone. It’s like a square knot with a little cross to connect the two ends. I tied cords onto all of my Airband masks. I have a few, because they’re washable up to 50 times, so seven will just about get you through a year.
At this point, we have pretty well-established COVID-19 routines, like mask-wearing, hand-washing, prioritizing the outdoors, and social distancing. What do you hope sticks around, post-vaccine?
In many cities in Asia, when people are feeling sick, they put on a mask. So I hope that we learn to wear masks any time we're sick. And I hope a tradition emerges that when you're sick, you don't go to work—and I hope employers acknowledge that. It's really in everybody's best interest not to make everybody else sick. These habits work in our favor—especially hand washing.
As we say in science, your enemies are not lions and tigers and bears. They, of course, are troublesome. Sure, they're spectacular. A shark attack is spectacular. A bear attack is noteworthy. But your real enemies are germs and parasites. That's what's gonna kill you.
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