You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Masks signal strangers to stay away, promoting social distancing, suggests Italian study

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 6/9/2020 By Julie Washington,
a group of people standing in front of a building: Shoppers wear masks when Beachwood Place reopens to the public in May. An Italian study looked at how wearing or not wearing a mask affects social distancing. © David Petkiewicz, Petkiewicz/ Shoppers wear masks when Beachwood Place reopens to the public in May. An Italian study looked at how wearing or not wearing a mask affects social distancing.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Wearing masks has a major effect on how we perceive others, and how close we are willing to get to strangers, a recent social experiment conducted in Italy suggests. The results give insight into social distance during the current health crisis.

People tend to draw closer to fellow pedestrians with bare faces, and move away from people wearing masks, according to a study conducted by Italian computer scientist Massimo Marchiori. The research is among the first to use data to measure what happens when a society that’s not used to covering faces — like the United States — starts doing so, according to a Washington Post article.

Marchiori also investigated how wearing masks and other personal protection equipment influenced social distancing.

“Everyone talks about social distancing,” Marchiori said in a news report, “but no one had actually measured actual social distancing.”

Wearing a mask in public has become common as Ohio reopens sectors of its economy. Masks are required in many places as part of public health efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Related: Lightweight masks to combat summer heat, humidity

To gather data, Marchiori created a “social distancing belt” that included a battery and sensors to measure the proximity of oncoming objects or people.

When he and his assistants wore belts for two months during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Venice, Marchiori measured more than 12,000 encounters with other people on sidewalks and in stores, the Washington Post said.

Marchiori’s study was published recently on, which makes emerging research available to the public. The work has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, more research will be conducted on the effects of wearing masks on personal interaction, said Cassi Pittman Claytor, a professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University.

“It limits the amount of face that can be viewed, making it more difficult to communicate,” Pittman Claytor said.

Wearing a mask eliminates the ability to smile at strangers, and makes it harder to recognize acquaintances. It’s still a good idea to smile, even if others can’t see your mouth, because the gesture will show up in other facial features, body language expert Janine Driver, founder and president of the Body Language Institute in Washington, D.C., told the Today show.

Marchiori’s social distancing study comes at a time when wearing or not wearing a mask has gained importance in the spheres of public health, politics and race relations.

Scientists continue to update guidance on masks. A paper funded by the World Health Organization, based on a review on 172 previous studies from around the world, found that face masks could result in a large reduction in risk of infection, and protect the wearer more than originally thought.

President Donald Trump has refused to be photographed with a mask, but presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden wore masks while visiting a veterans memorial in Delaware for Memorial Day.

During a week when the nation has seen ongoing civil protests about police brutality in Washington, D.C., and beyond, African-Americans have concerns about how they will be perceived by the police and others if they are in public with a face covering, Pittman Claytor said.

“Masks might trigger biases and stereotypes,” she said.

Despite statistics showing that African-American communities are among those hardest hit by the pandemic, many African-American men feel that wearing a mask will make them a target, the online health publication STAT reported recently.

“Just as they are more likely than white people to be stopped and frisked, to be pulled over for traffic violations, and to be charged with drug crimes, Black individuals also appear more likely to be targeted by police for simply wearing masks. In a heartbreaking calculus, many are choosing not to wear them at all,” the article said.

Pastor Jerome Hurst, first vice president of the NAACP Cleveland branch, agrees. He has his own personal rules, or what he called “mental gymnastics,” to try to look less threatening with his face covered.

Hurst puts on his mask only after he has entered a store. He tries to stick with a white medical-style mask, and he takes it off when driving in his car alone.

While he hasn’t had any problems, he encourages male parishioners who don’t wear masks to put them back on to protect their families.

“You roll the dice,” Hurst said. “Coronavirus or harassment? Which are you gonna get?”

Masks you can buy now:


©2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

Visit The Plain Dealer, Cleveland at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


More From The Plain Dealer

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland
The Plain Dealer Cleveland
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon