I Believe You Should Always Wear a Mask: Sometimes, I Forget
Part of pandemic public health is encouraging each other to make the right decisions for all of us.
My family and I went to see The Northman this weekend. Alexander Skarsgård stomped around the screen bare-chested and bellowing, mouth open in a great wolf howl after tearing out some poor soul’s throat with his teeth.
In the audience, there was less throat-tearing and bellowing, but mouths were open, or at least visible. I live in a blue city, but we’ve mostly abandoned masks. In the moderately crowded, not very well-ventilated theater, I think I was the only one wearing a face covering. That includes my wife and daughter, who both had snacks and didn’t bother putting masks back on when they were finished with them. I sort of thought I should tell them to wear them. But then I didn’t want to be a spoilsport and have my daughter roll her eyes at me. So I didn’t.
We’re fully vaccinated—my wife and I got the second booster shot the day after it was available—and case numbers aren’t that high. We are at significantly less risk of death and dismemberment than people who randomly crossed the path of Alexander Skarsgård and his bellowing.
Still, cases are rising, breakthrough infections do happen, and those sometimes result in long COVID—extended clusters of symptoms that can be debilitating for months, years or a lifetime, no one really knows. Masks help prevent COVID transmission, reducing your chances of getting the disease and of spreading it. Wearing them is a little annoying, but getting long COVID is a lot worse than a little annoying.
So wear masks, all of you!
I Don’t Always Wear Masks When I Should
“All of you” would, you’d think, include my family. If I’m going to harangue you (and you!) about wearing masks, shouldn’t I also harangue my nearest and dearest?
Or, for that matter, shouldn’t I harangue myself? I wear masks almost always when I go into stores or indoor spaces, but that “almost” is sitting there staring at me with baleful masklessness. Sometimes, occasionally, I get out of the car and into the Walgreens and realize I’m not wearing a mask.
And then, sometimes, occasionally, I’ve deliberately not worn a mask. At the low point of the pandemic, during summer 2021, my wife and I went to Iceland. It had low case numbers and high vaccination rates, and we thought it was our chance to travel after more than a year of sitting in the house staring at the cats. Who we love. But a year is a long time.
Iceland was marvelous. But no one wore masks, anywhere, ever. After a few days, we decided when in Iceland, we would do as they do in The Northman and not wear masks while cleaving our enemies in twain. Or even while doing other things, like shopping.
Anti-maskers love to point to lapses such as this to suggest that pro-maskers are hypocrites. How can you expect reluctant maskers to wear masks when even enthusiastic mask advocates don’t want to wear them in a movie theater or Walgreens or Iceland? Shouldn’t we just stop shaming other people and all take off our masks and let the virus do its worst? After all, I’ve avoided the virus so far, despite occasional failures to mask. Why shouldn’t everyone else do fine?
Public Health Involves Every Single One of Us
Everyone else doesn’t necessarily do fine is the thing. Shortly after we left Iceland, it experienced a major surge in case numbers. This probably had something to do with the fact that no one wears masks. Vaccination kept the severity of symptoms down, but long COVID remains a real worry. We didn’t get COVID, which was lucky. But we should have worn masks.
The thing is, it’s a lot easier to wear masks if everyone else is wearing masks. In the U.S. now, we’re treating public health as an exercise in individual responsibility. If you’re worried about COVID, wear masks. If you’re not, don’t. Make the choice that’s best for you!
But public health isn’t an individual thing. Like it says in the name, it’s a public problem and a public responsibility. Community actions and community expectations have a huge effect on how individuals behave. Even when that individual is, say, me.
People feel like their choices are theirs; you decide when and where you go, and when and where you go with a mask. But if I reflect for a second, it’s clear that what others are doing and what’s expected of me has a major effect on what public health choices I make.
When I’ve been in places with mask mandates, where everyone masks and where people gently remind you to mask when you enter—I don’t forget to mask. When mandates are lifted and fewer people wear masks, I (and my family) tend to get lazy. I mask less or may forget, even though I still think wearing a mask is safest and even though I’m still worried about getting COVID.
Again, because we frame public health as an exercise in personal choice, we’ve convinced ourselves that mandates, or even recommendations, are an infringement on personal liberty and our right to inhale as much COVID virus as we want.
But in a terrifying pandemic that has killed a million people in the U.S. and disabled who knows how many more, you need government and community to help you get to a place where you can do the right thing for your health and for the health of everyone else. The minor annoyance of wearing a mask is front of mind when you get into the Walgreens and realize you left the stupid mask in the car and do you really want to go back? The major annoyance of possibly contracting a deadly disease and suffering years of grinding fatigue from organ damage seems abstract and distant. You need other people to remind you that you need to protect yourself and them.
The U.S. has largely abandoned mandates and communal efforts to combat COVID. We’re told that this is pandemic fatigue; people just won’t support masking anymore. But maybe it’s the other way around.
When governments and communities give up on mandates and nudges, people get lazy and fatigued. We like fantasies where a singular Northman cuts a swathe of fierce pectorals through quaking enemies, his flashing steel driven by indomitable will. In real life, though, when we face adversity, we tend to crumple unless we get support. I’ll keep trying to wear a mask. But I’d do better and be healthier and safer if we hadn’t given up on helping each other make the right choices.