When state parks and forests reopened to the public in early May, 50 to 70% of visitors were wearing face coverings to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

This past weekend, it's estimated that mask usage among guests declined sharply to about 10%, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

That's one reason the DEP on Wednesday launched a public awareness campaign that strongly encourages the public to "mask up" and keep their mouths and noses covered when visiting the state's parks, beaches, forests and other open spaces, especially where it is difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others.

"The science is pretty clear that the chances of virus transmission are significantly reduced if everyone wears a face mask," said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe during a webinar about COVID-19's impact on the state's parks and other natural resources.

The campaign includes posters and social media content to be used by counties and municipalities. The DEP will be posting signage throughout state forests, state parks and wildlife management areas.

"What we are observing is that people seem to be wearing masks less often, rather than more often," McCabe said.

McCabe said maintaining a safe distance is extremely difficult in on-site public restrooms. The state started opening restrooms last weekend and will have additional restrooms open for the holiday weekend.

Dr. Susan Willard, associate dean for Global Health at Rutgers School of Nursing, said a mask can still provide significant protection while worn outdoors — wearing one protects others from you, and the compliance of others protects you from them.

"The threat is that you let your guard down, you can become complacent," Willard said.

You can't always control who comes within 6 feet of you, Willard noted. Even on a seemingly empty trail, an asymptomatic runner or biker could approach suddenly, and you want the option to be protected.

"If there is no one around ... then yes, take the mask off, but keep it in your pocket so that you can quickly put it on," Willard said.

In its recommendation regarding the use of face coverings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against using surgical masks or N-95 respirators, as those are critical supplies for healthcare workers and first responders. The CDC says cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials can be used to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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