Embrace The Face Mask As A Cultural Symbol Of 2020

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It has become nemesis of Karens across America during this pandemic – the face mask: a piece of cloth covering your nose and mouth that at the very least can cut down the number of respiratory droplets you expel, and in turn dramatically cut down the chance of transmission of viruses like COVID-19.

Seems like a simple, not very disruptive thing everyone can do to stop the spread? No?

Apparently not. Conspiracy minded-Americans, civil libertarians, professional contrarians, Floridians and other generally annoying people are having meltdowns over mandates to wear masks in public. They have intensified as mandates to wear masks have been popping up all over America since the second wave of infections began last month – or is the second half of the first wave? I don’t even know anymore. We’e seen them all over social media; men and women throwing literal tantrums over being asked to put on a mask in a store. One woman in Arizona even filmed herself tearing apart the facemask display at Target, before predictably saying something racist to the store’s employees.

In lieu of just forcing everyone to stay indoors until the very last COVID case is recovered, and perhaps for two weeks thereafter, there is no way to really control the virus in a sustainable way. But mask wearing helps significantly. It allows us to feel safer doing everyday things like shopping and going to the doctor, and it opens up the possibility of socializing or doing stuff that would otherwise be considered risky like visiting a museum or taking a tour. COVID-19 would still infect some, but the numbers would be much smaller and the spread would move slower, giving time for contact tracers to catch up and health professionals to find treatments or a vaccine.

But they become less helpful, though, if people won’t wear them. In order to be effective, they must really be worn primarily by people who ARE infected. The risk to those not infected goes down if an infected person without a mask is close by, but by less than it would if only the infected person is masked and much, much less than if both parties are wearing a mask. (see chart below). They must also cover both the mouth AND nose.

A common PSA flyers explaining the reduced risk of transmission of COVID-19 with mask-wearing.

So how do we get people to embrace wearing a mask? It is difficult. Opposition to wearing masks is not new. When they were mandated during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, entire groups were formed to oppose the ordinances. In San Francisco, the Anti-Mask League grew powerful enough to push the city to (prematurely) lift the mask mandate, which led to a small second wave in early 1919.

Mask wearing in New York has not been terribly controversial. Most people wear them and social pressure is immense, even in conservative parts of the city and state. In Staten Island last month, a crowd actually kicked a woman out of a supermarket for not wearing a mask. Stark difference that we’ve seen in the Sun Belt and Midwest. I think it helps a lot that we’re moving beyond just the standard blue and white disposable surgical masks into more designer and fashionable masks. Though nothing works better than the N95 type, regular face masks provided some protecting, perhaps enough to keep COVID-19 manageable while we wait for a vaccine. They also provide an opportunity to turn masks in a cultural and fashion symbol – a new accessory.

While keeping a diary during lockdown that I hope to one day show young people too young to remember this pandemic, I realized that the mask might be to them what my grandmother’s World War II ration card was to me – a tangible symbol of the era. When someone asks about the pandemic, I will pull out my masks and talk about the experience of having to wear them. What if we made face masks to 2020 what bell bottoms were to 1976? or poodle skirts were to 1958? Or snap bracelets were to 1990? And what better way to encourage people to wear them than to let them pick out one or make one that represents who they are; a favorite color, the logo of a sports team, their school, whatever.

On Tuesday, in response to commentator Chris Hayes saying on Twitter that he had a hard time coming to terms with how long the pandemic might last, someone said the potential length of it hit him or her “when I noticed places were advertising personalized face masks.” I found that odd. When this started, we were all told it would be *at least* 12-18 months. We’re in month four or six, depending on who you ask, that means we could be as little as 6 to 8 more months or as long as 14 months or more from the pandemic ending and all public health measures lifting. Why not get a face masks that represents you, even if you only have to wear it for another 6-14 more months?

I got myself a Game of Thrones themed one (what do we say to the God of Death?), another that has the NYC flag on it, and I bought myself a set of four face masks from the Taylor Jay Collection, a boutique women’s fashion company based in Oakland, Calif. Check out their line of face coverings – and other fashion options – here. Last night, I put my mask collection a Command hook in my room to display them and have them in a place where I can grab them easily.

Embracing the mask as part of the pandemic new normal was helpful for me. Should I decided to do some of my favorite summer activities this year – whale watching, ferry hoping, visiting the zoo, or taking my favorite tour cruise around Manhattan – the mask allows me to do it with a high level of peace of mind. I have less of a chance of getting COVID-19 and less of a chance of giving it to somebody else if I happened to be infected, but asymptomatic.

My masks hanging by my desk, ready for use in the coming months.

There is one concern about wearing masks that I won’t dismiss however. I know some who have trauma related to sexual abuse and their PTSD is triggered by mask-wearing. I know at least two people who have expressed this and I’m not going to pass judgement or dismiss those concerns. My good friend and Reiki healer Rev. Joanne Angel Barry Colon has an article concerning this subject at her blog and is exploring more information from experts about it. You can read her essay here.

What happens the pandemic ends and its safe to go outside maskless? Well, I keep them – for when its cold and I want to cover my mouth and nose, or when I have a cold or the flu and need to go to the doctor, or for when its flu seasons and the virus is widespread and I want to avoid catching it. Might this be part of our new normal? Perhaps. It worked for East Asia.

But most of all, I’ll keep them for when future generations search for a tangible symbol of this era, and I can put it on and tell them how I wore it to help prevent myself and others from catching COVID-19.

Let’s all embrace it as our social symbol for this era and let’s keep our masks as a reminder of what we went through and what, and who, we lost.


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