There has been some talk about who should be wearing masks and what kind since the first infected cruise ships waited to dock and get passengers who were sick with a new virus safely home. Next, the White House restricted travel to China at the end of January, and then to Europe in February. Americans really took notice when the first American, an elderly resident at a nursing home in the state of Washington, died at the end of February as a result of contracting a novel disease about which we knew little.
All those news clips of everyday people from Wuhan, China, and surrounding areas, bustling in masks, before the streets were abandoned and hospitals were being built in days, were beginning to hit home. Coronavirus was coming to our communities, and with that, our lives would change.
Part of that change was adopting new practices like social distancing, staying at home and even wearing masks.
At first, it was suggested that if you were healthy, you needn’t wear a mask, that only those who were sick, had previous health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, or were elderly should wear one. That guideline fell away as first-responders and health-care workers fell prey to COVID-19 as our frontline force.
As most Americans completed a 15-day stay-at-home advisory and have again been asked to continue to follow those same guidelines until the end of April, we are seeing that we’re in it for the long haul. It’s going to get tougher before it gets easier. Vaccines for the new coronavirus are in the works but won’t be available to the general public for 12-18 months; until then we can control what we can by utilizing the tools available to us.
Now the latest data suggests that perhaps each of us should be wearing a mask whenever we leave our homes for those much-needed items, such as groceries, prescriptions or gas, for example. The idea? A mask is more like a string tied to a finger reminding people of something important — in this case, not to touch your face, something I do often. In a way, I feel a little better when I learn it’s natural to touch your face, and to do so in the vicinity of 2,000 times a day!
I don’t have to say that’s bad news when there’s an infectious disease floating around that we are still trying to figure out. When you see that the coronavirus enters through the tip of a nose, the corner of an eye, or the edge of your lips, wearing a mask makes perfect protective sense. And in this case, during a mask shortage, any mask will do that trick. No, a couple layers of cotton won’t prevent a large droplet from infiltrating, but it will stop your fingers from aiding and abetting during a pandemic that nefariously relies on people transmitting the disease through any one of those facial portals with the single touch of a finger.
I think it might be odd to wear a mask, especially if you’re not used to it, which I’m not. After all, this is the home of the free and the brave, and a mask just doesn’t seem to fit that ideology. Protective face masks are not part of our everyday American culture, but that might be changing, and let’s hope so, at least for the short term. We can get back to being free once we’ve eradicated this thing.
It’s not normal to see people going in and out of the grocery store with most of their faces covered, but the more we see people doing it, the less strange it will seem.
My 11-year-old grandson thought the sight of people wearing latex gloves and masks to do their food shopping was weird, especially for his suburban town of Lunenburg, but he understands how it might help to slow the spread and protect the people he cares about, including himself. Mostly, he says he really misses school because he misses being with his friends. Classes start online next week for him. As we chat via FaceTime, I imagine his eager face in a mask, and though I think about making my grandkids some fun homemade renditions (and I don’t even sew), the seriousness of it all, as much as I fight it, takes precedence over cute patterns.
A few weeks ago, our trips to the store were protocols of Purell and carefully wiping down cart handles. This week is different. There’s a sign on an empty dispenser directing people to ask inside the store for a squirt of hand sanitizer. We’ve wriggled into rubber gloves, too. The cashiers stand behind rigid Plexiglas shields now, and there’s someone telling shoppers when it’s OK to push our carts ahead to the next safe distance, a circle on the floor reminding us to keep our distances. We stand and wait for our turn. The old bumper-to-bumper series of packed-in register lines where people chitchat have transformed into one spaced-out, herded line, corralled in part because the individual entrances to registers have been roped off.
I’m surprised that only half of the patrons are shopping behind some kind of a mask. Along with most of the employees working hard to stock shelves, check customers and bag groceries, I wonder at a young couple, a professorial man in a corduroy blazer and a woman in a big overcoat with even bigger buttons, who were gloveless and maskless. In and around all of us, there’s an air of ambivalence, an uncertainty mixed with a kind of urgency and, like an afterthought, sprinkled with complacency.
The night before, I went online to see if we could order masks. Things are getting too close for comfort. I’m ambivalent because I don’t want to buy a crucial item a health-care worker or first-responder or someone whose health is compromised will need more than I will. My choice is made for me. As I suspected, protective masks are either unavailable or back-ordered for a month or more, and even the more pedestrian face masks made from cotton, which need a filter inserted or don’t even have that application, are questionable as to when they’d arrive.
I heard that in a pinch, a bandanna would work.
Now we wear gloves and we tie on bandannas before we enter the grocery store. It feels awkward, but it helps to remind us not to touch our faces, so we do it.
Steve waits in line while I run to get toilet paper. I return, my bandanna slipping and my hands empty. Wearing a mask assumes a hostile environment, and the lack of toilet paper adds to that narrative, and when I really think about it, it seems crazy that a couple layers of folded cotton is the only thing between my nose and the rest of the world.
I suppose I should try to be less dramatic about it, but that’s me. My husband takes a different approach. There’s some solace in that, but there’s also a tension that happens because of it. He thinks it’s fun, and reminds him of playing cops and robbers with his brothers when he was a kid.
For now, when we go out for essentials, it’s gloves and masks. Whichever way we look at it, the mask has become our new normal for now. And the only way I see fit is one mask-wearing at a time.
Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University and writes about writing, learning and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey. Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com