Thursday, April 9, 2020

Wearing a mask: It's not about you -- April 9, 2020 column


Until now, masks were something other people wore.

Train robbers in the Wild West. Modern cowboys on horseback, riding the dusty range. Midnight marauders plucking glittery diamonds from posh jewelry stores.

In the olden days – 2019 -- masks in the United States were mostly confined to medical professionals. 

Occasionally, you’d see an ordinary person wearing a mask on the street or subway, and you’d wonder: common cold or something worse?

Then, in the early days of 2020, we started seeing photos of men, women, everyone, in China wearing masks as the novel coronavirus and the killer disease it causes, COVID-19, swept the land. Across Asia, virus and masks spread.

These people like wearing masks, we read. They like the conformity and masks reduce disease.

That sounded sensible, but masks were not for us. As the disease spread to cruise ships and made landfall in the United States, the federal government urged Americans not to succumb to the siren call of masks.

On Feb. 29, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome M. Adams tweeted: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS!

“They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

So, I didn’t buy any masks. I left the surgical and N95 or respirator masks for the sick and the medical heroes who desperately need them.

I also passed by the painters’ and dust masks. The masks were expensive by then and in short supply. I didn’t buy extra coffee filters, which I had no idea I’d need.

Then, last Friday the Centers for Disease Control reversed course and recommended that Americans wear cloth face coverings for “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

I felt like a chump.

I’d listened to the authorities and was unprepared.

Americans learned, finally, what Asians had long known. The beauty of wearing a mask is it’s not about protecting oneself. Wearing a mask is an act of generosity toward others.

The coronavirus is so contagious that asymptomatic people can have the virus and, without knowing it, infect others. With a mask, if you happen to breathe, sneeze or cough near someone, you won’t transmit the virus. We hope.

If everyone wears masks, we protect each other. What could be more patriotic?

Naturally, President Donald Trump stressed masks are voluntary and he himself wouldn’t wear one.

“Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I just don’t see it,” he said. Heaven forbid a dictator might laugh at the Donald.

Trump has tested negative for the coronavirus. Before he met with corporate bigwigs at the White House the other day, he had them all tested.

First lady Melania Trump urged people to take seriously the CDC’s recommendation to wear masks. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, also recommended Virginians wear masks.

But what kind? Authorities said cloth masks are OK, and templates for sewing them are everywhere online.

Again, I felt like a chump. I don’t have a sewing machine, and it’s too late to hone my hand-sewing skills.

But Surgeon General Adams made a video of himself folding up a square of cloth and using hair ties to make a mask. That I could do.

The effectiveness of such cloth masks was questionable, though. Fabric matters, and tight weaves, like flannel, are better than loose cotton weaves.

Updated CDC instructions on bandanas call for adding a layer of filtration, like a coffee filter, to screen tiny droplets. 

But remember, even if you wear a mask with good filtration, you still need to wash your hands frequently and maintain social distancing of six feet from other people.

Keith and I watched the surgeon general’s video, folded our bandanas just so and attached the hair ties. Our ears hurt from the ties, the several layers of cloth impeded our breathing and our sunglasses steamed up.

“And the point is?” I whined, as we suited up for a walk.

“Solidarity!” Keith said. Yes, solidarity, and doing our part in the fight against the coronavirus.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. Marsha, this is a beautifully written account of your journey with the issue of wearing masks. We were fortunate to have some left over masks in the basement--mine from a repair of a flooded basement and Becky's from the organization lady. And as the old song put it, "Solidarity forever!" (Or until the epidemic ends.)

    1. Thank you, Dan! Great to hear from you. Yes, "Solidarity forever!"