Coronavirus (COVID-19): face coverings
The use of face coverings is required in all indoor settings accessible to the public across Northern Ireland. This includes shops, shopping centres, public, private and school transport services, taxis, airplanes, public transport stations and airports, banks, cinemas, and some government offices.
The reason for using face coverings
Coronavirus (COVID-19) usually spreads by droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking. These droplets can also be picked up from surfaces, if you touch a surface and then your face without washing your hands first.
This is why social distancing, regular hand hygiene, and covering coughs and sneezes is important in controlling the spread of the virus.
The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others.
Because face coverings are mainly intended to protect others, not the wearer, from coronavirus (COVID-19) they’re not a replacement for social distancing and regular hand washing.
It’s important to follow all the other government advice on coronavirus (COVID-19) including taking steps to stay safe and help prevent the spread.
If you have recent onset of any of the most important symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19):
- a new continuous cough
- a high temperature
- a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of smell or taste (anosmia)
you and your household must isolate at home. Wearing a face covering does not change this. You should arrange to have a test to see if you have COVID-19.
Although face coverings may not prevent you from becoming infected with the virus, they help prevent you from spreading the virus to others if you are unaware you are infected (some people don’t have any symptoms, especially early in the infection).
By wearing a face covering you are showing your support and consideration for others and playing your part to prevent transmission of the virus.
Face coverings in indoor public places
Generally, you must wear a face covering indoors in any premises that are accessible to the public.
This includes when shopping, in a bank, in a restaurant or café unless seated at a table, and in some government buildings. If you are in any doubt, you should wear a face covering.
Face coverings are also required when entering or exiting a place of worship or a place where beliefs are practiced. While there is currently no legal requirement to wear a face covering during an act of worship, it is still strongly advised.
Given the current situation and threat of the Omicron variant, it is important that we take additional measures to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
You must wear a face covering in:
- hospitality settings - cafe/bar/restaurant when not eating or drinking
- cultural and heritage sites
- indoor zoos and visitor farms
- bingo halls
- amusement arcades
- indoor sports stadiums
- theme parks
- bowling alleys
- indoor play areas including soft-play areas when not involved in physical exercise activity
- snooker and pool halls
- auction houses
- estate agents
- concert halls
- conference facilities
- comedy clubs and other leisure facilities
People who work in the public areas of any enclosed publicly-accessible premises must also wear a face covering, unless they are separated from members of the public by a partition, or they are exempt. This includes, for example, someone stacking shelves in a supermarket or a waiter in a café.
You do not have to wear a face covering if you are seated in a restaurant, pub or café, though you must replace it if you have any reason to leave your seat, such as when entering or leaving the premises and when visiting the toilet.
If you are a customer of a food takeaway business, or a shop that sells food or drink for immediate consumption, and it provides seating for its customers, you may remove your face covering while eating and drinking at those seats.
You do not have to wear a face covering in a gym or other place where the purpose of your attendance is physical exercise.
If you are in any doubt about whether you are required to wear a face covering, you are advised to wear one. Remember, maintaining social distancing depends not just on your behaviour, but also on the behaviour of other people in the shared space.
Since 27 December 2021, it is a legal requirement for all businesses, such as retail, hospitality, transport providers and close contact services to take reasonable measures to promote compliance with face coverings regulations.
This may include, but is not limited to, effective signage, audio messaging and providing face coverings when necessary.
Face coverings on public transport, coaches, taxis and tour buses
Face coverings have been mandatory on public transport since 10 July 2020.
On 14 October 2020 this requirement was extended to private hire transport and air travel.
All passengers of post-primary school age and above as well as all staff must now wear a face covering on all forms of passenger transport and in stations, including:
- on all buses and coaches, including private hire vehicles and school services
- on all train services
- in indoor areas of a ferry
- in taxis
- in airports
- in indoor areas of public transport premises
Your driver should also wear a mask, unless he or she is behind a partition or has a reasonable excuse (see below).
Face coverings on school transport
It is mandatory for all post-primary aged pupils to wear a face covering on both public transport and school transport services.
This includes on:
- Education Authority buses
- Translink dedicated school buses
- private coaches and taxis used to travel to school
- public trains, buses and ferries
Only those children who have a reasonable excuse for not wearing one are not required to do so. Examples of reasonable excuses include physical or mental impairment or disability, and causing severe stress.
It is also strongly recommended that all primary aged pupils should wear a face covering on both public transport and school transport services where it is appropriate for them to do so and they are able to handle them as directed.
Learning to drive
If you are learning to drive, both you and your instructor must wear a face covering, unless they live in the same household as you. You must wear a face covering when taking your driving test, as must your examiner.
Exemptions from wearing a face covering
It remains a legal requirement to wear a face covering in specified places.
You don’t have to wear a face covering in a public indoor place:
- if you are under the age of 13
- if you are a member of staff or employee of the shop, shopping centre or bank and are behind a partition, or if you are in an area not open to the public and can maintain a two metre social distance from your colleagues
- If you have a reasonable excuse not to
You do not have to wear a face covering on passenger transport or in a passenger transport station:
- if you are still at primary school
- if you are a member of staff and are behind a protective screen
Employees working in publicly-accessible premises can tell you to wear a face covering, and can tell you to leave the premises if you refuse to wear one and do not have a reasonable excuse not to.
Some circumstances make it difficult for some people to wear face coverings. In these circumstances people may have a 'reasonable excuse' not to wear a face covering.
These reasonable excuses include:
- if you need to seek medical assistance or to provide care to someone who needs assistance, such as a vulnerable person or in an emergency
- if you have a physical or mental illness or impairment, or a disability that means you cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering
- if you are travelling with, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip reading to communicate
- if you need to remove it to avoid harm or injury or the risk of harm or injury to yourself or others
- if you need to eat, drink, or take medication
- if you are asked to remove your face covering by a police officer or someone who may need to check your identity, for example, when buying alcohol, when you are at the bank, or in an airport or when boarding an aircraft
- if it causes you severe distress to wear a face covering
If you work in a public-facing role, and you are asked to remove your face covering by a person who has difficulties communicating, for example, someone who relies on lip reading, you can temporarily remove your face covering to facilitate communication.
It is important that we all respect one another and remember that the reasons for not wearing a face covering may not always be visible.
How to make a face covering
A face covering is a covering of any type which covers both your nose and mouth.
You should use a reusable, cloth face covering if possible to help protect the environment. Emerging evidence suggests that the risk of transmission may be reduced by using thicker fabrics or multiple layers but it should still be breathable.
There is advice about how to make your own face covering available on the UK Government website.
How to wear a face covering
In line with the advice from the World Health Organisation, when you wear a face covering it is important that you:
- do not get a false sense of security about the level of protection they may offer
- continue to practice social distancing
- wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on, and after removing it
A face covering should:
- cover your nose and mouth while allowing you to breathe comfortably
- fit comfortably but securely against the side of the face
- be secured to the head with ties or ear loops
- be made of a material that you find to be comfortable and breathable, such as cotton
- ideally include at least two layers of fabric (the World Health Organisation recommends three depending on the fabric used)
- unless disposable, it should be able to be washed with other items of laundry according to fabric washing instructions and dried without causing the face covering to be damaged
A vent is not recommended. Masks with valves allow air breathed out to pass unfiltered into the environment, along with potential droplets, defeating the key purpose of protecting those around you.
When wearing a face covering
When wearing a face covering you should:
- make sure the face covering covers your mouth, nose and chin without any gaps at the side
- wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before putting a face covering on
- avoid wearing on your neck or forehead
- avoid touching the part of the face covering in contact with your mouth and nose, as it could be contaminated with the virus
- change the face covering if it becomes damp or if you’ve touched it
- avoid taking it off and putting it back on a lot in quick succession (for example, when leaving and entering shops on a high street)
When removing a face covering
When removing a face covering you should:
- wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser before removing
- only handle the straps, ties or clips
- do not give it to someone else to use
- if single-use, dispose of it carefully in a residual waste bin and do not recycle
- if reusable, wash it in line with manufacturer’s instructions at the highest temperature appropriate for the fabric after every use
- wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser once removed
Face visors or face shields
Face visors or shields do not offer the same protection as a cloth face covering which sits directly over the nose and the mouth.
If you wear a face shield or a visor you should also wear a cloth face covering.
The use of cloth face coverings is recommended, as they provide much better protection from the risk of infection from the COVID-19 virus.
Maintaining and disposing of face coverings
Do not touch the front of the face covering, or the part of the face covering that has been in contact with your mouth and nose.
Once removed, store reusable face coverings in a plastic bag until you have an opportunity to wash them.
If the face covering is single use, dispose of it in a waste bin - do not put them in a recycling bin.
Make sure you clean any surfaces the face covering has touched using normal household cleaning products. If eating in a restaurant, for example, it is important that you do not place the face covering on the table.
Wash your face covering regularly and follow the washing instructions for the fabric. You can use your normal detergent. You can wash and dry it with other laundry.
You must throw away your face covering if it is damaged.