With apologies to William Shakespeare, these past couple of weeks have been rather confusing, with two of the major federal agencies leading the battle against COVID-19 – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – issuing somewhat, well, inconsistent guidance on the use of cloth face coverings or masks.

For many months now, the CDC has told us that cloth masks help to control the spread of COVID-19 by providing a barrier to help prevent the wearer’s respiratory droplets from reaching others – but that the masks did not protect the wearer. And because such cloth masks had no protective function, OSHA naturally declared that they were not personal protective equipment (PPE), which is significant because there may be OSHA-mandated employer obligations relating to the use of PPE in the workplace (e,g. fit testing, training, documentation, etc.).

On November 12, however, the CDC asserted for the first time that cloth masks also offer some protection to the wearer – although how much protection depends on a number of factors, such as the type of fabric used, the number of layers, and the fit.  But if the masks have a protective function, doesn’t that make them PPE?

Well, not according to OSHA, which added the following question and answer to its COVID-19 FAQs:

Not at this time. OSHA continues to strongly encourage workers to wear face coverings when they are in close contact with others to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, if it is appropriate for the work environment. As the agency has previously noted, employers may determine that cloth face coverings must be worn as a feasible means of abatement in a control plan designed to address hazards from COVID-19. Currently, however, OSHA’s guidance is unchanged; OSHA does not consider cloth face coverings PPE and they are not required under OSHA’s PPE standard (29 CFR 1910.132).

OSHA goes on to note that the CDC has remarked on the need for additional research as to the factors impacting the cloth masks’ effectiveness as personal protection. Thus, “[a]t this time, OSHA does not think enough information is available to determine whether a particular cloth face covering provides sufficient protection from the hazard of COVID-19 to be personal protective equipment under OSHA’s standard (29 CFR 1910.132).” OSHA leaves open the possibility that such a determination could be made in the future.

But regardless of whether a cloth mask is PPE or not, the CDC, OSHA and the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that wearing one can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and, now, can also offer at least some degree of protection. So in the words of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, “Just wear the damn mask!”