Today, two things happened that made me think we’re sometimes doing more harm than good when it comes to masking requirements and how we react to them.
First, the chamber of commerce in my city hosted a monthly morning gathering at a local ice cream parlor. The event generated piles of online vitriol when a photo was posted on social media, showing many of the attendees unmasked as they munched donuts and drank coffee. The online back-and-forth hatred got so heated that the post was removed. Mind you, the post itself was perfectly ordinary — but the absolutely hateful responses it generated were unbelievable.
The second event was a heartfelt plea from the owner of a different ice cream parlor in a neighboring town. In a social media post, the business owner begged anti-masking customers to stop coming in and screaming obscenities at his teenaged employees when those employees ask customers to mask up before entering. The ice cream parlor’s young workers are increasingly afraid to come to work because they know some patrons will become profane lunatics when asked to comply with a simple state mandate.
Before going further, I need to be very clear on two points.
First, the purpose of this essay is not to debate any aspect of COVID.
Second, I am not trying to change anyone’s mind regarding masking.
I am, however, trying to get people to perhaps think before they act. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
I am going to reiterate my own perspective on masking but, please remember, this is my perspective, what I believe. I am spelling it out but I am not asking anyone to agree or disagree with me.
For over two hundred years, we have listened to the credentialed medical experts whenever we’ve faced a public health crisis. Even if those experts turn out to be wrong, I would argue following their instructions remains the sensible course of action. In any crisis, we turn to experts for advice. It’s the responsible thing to do. In this case, their masking advice is a nuisance, an irritant, a total annoyance. But in the big scheme of things, being told to wear a little fabric on your face is a very minor inconvenience.
I remain pro-masking — I don’t like it but it’s a tiny piece of cloth. In disbelief, I hear people refer to mask mandates as tyranny and I realize how hyperbole has become the norm. No, if the state came for your guns, that would be tyranny. Asking you to put a hanky on your face is an annoyance, an inconvenience, an irritation. But it is nowhere near tyranny.
I recently queried four medical professionals: a PA-C, an RN, and two MDs. All four essentially stated that mask-wearing on a large scale is mostly theater. The requirement makes people feel better, that they’re taking action, but the whole endeavor is not producing significant results because too few people have properly followed through. Sure, they said, you can give yourself a measure of protection from airborne germs by wearing a mask and likewise protect others from your own germs but, for mass masking to work, everyone needs to be committed to masking properly.
More specifically, in order for masking to work on a large scale, everyone must wear the right kind of mask and wear it the right way, every time, no exceptions.
In general, people fall into one of three groups concerning their mask habits.
The first group practices almost military discipline in their masking, taking public health officials’ instructions seriously and going to great lengths to follow them. This group buys the correct masks and its members wear them correctly every time. They often feel the need to correct others on their mask behavior, sometimes using condescending and insulting words, effectively acting as mask police.
The second group is outraged they are asked to mask at all so they refuse. No masks. A surprising number of them feel so strongly that they think screaming obscenities at young kids who are just doing what their boss has asked them to do is a perfectly acceptable course of action.
The third group is the largest and undoubtedly the laziest. It consists of people who wear masks but wear them sloppily, allowing them to drop below their noses or other common errors. It should be noted that many in this third group were originally enthusiastic maskers — until they got tired of it. At three recent appointments with my physicians, two different doctors wore their masks well below their noses the entire length of my appointments. If a physician can’t even wear his mask correctly, what’s the point?
By my estimation, well over one-third — more likely over one-half — of the population simply will not or cannot follow through with enough discipline to have made masking work as originally envisioned. Whether you like it or not, this is reality.
It’s already been established that mask-shaming — public shaming for not wearing a mask or public shaming for wearing one, shaming works both ways — not only fails to get people to change their behavior but actually makes them more likely to double-down and continue on their chosen paths.
Which brings me back to the point of this essay: getting people to think before they act. In this frustratingly imperfect world, the vitriol and hatred we’re drumming up against “the other side” are serving absolutely no useful or healthy purpose.
It’s not changing behavior, it’s not changing minds, it’s not stopping COVID.
We are all human and, like it or not, we are all in this together. If what we’re currently doing isn’t helping and is in all probability making things worse, shouldn’t we reexamine how we’re going about the issue?
Rather than passing judgment on a snapshot moment, maybe consider the entire context — examine the minutes both before and after the snapshot moment that caught your ire. Yes, munching donuts and drinking coffee is an activity that, by necessity, is conducted maskless, akin to enjoying a meal in a restaurant. Even if this behavior is anathema to you, does posting scathing contempt accomplish anything?
On the other side, consider the minor momentary irritation that wearing a mask into a business causes. Even if you’re convinced no benefit exists to masking, think of it as a stupid rule you must follow for the time being. If the biggest problem you face is masking up before entering a store, you should consider yourself fortunate.
But if the thought of wearing that little piece of cloth over your nose and mouth enrages you to the point you scream obscenities at teenage kids who work at ice cream parlors, you should be embarrassed by your lack of maturity and self-control. And you should stay out of businesses that might ask you to mask up.
As I said before, I am not trying to change anyone’s mind on masking. I am also not changing my own stance on masking. But I am suggesting that mean-spirited vitriol posted online or screamed at teenage ice cream vendors might be something everyone could do without.
Such malevolent venom accomplishes nothing useful, constructive or healthy.
Photograph © Waldemar Brandt via Unsplash