As the pandemic has worn on, the advice on wearing a face mask has made a complete reversal. While mask wearing in Asia has long been a flu-season staple, the practice had not been widely adopted in the United States and Canada up until a month ago. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, Officials in the U.S. were cautioning against wearing a mask, even the highly effective N95 masks. This advice was based on studies that showed masks worn incorrectly did not protect the wearer from infection and in fact might cause more infection through increased touching of the face to adjust the mask. Officials were also worried that masks might give the wearer a false sense of immunity and he/she would relax other important preventative measures such as spit distancing and hand washing.
My mother-in-law Theresa now lives in Canada but grew up in Hong Kong. She is 82 so is in a high-risk population. In early March, when the advice was still to NOT wear a mask, she took her one and only trip out of the house, to Costco, and she was appalled that she was the only person in the entire store wearing a mask. From her Asian perspective, where there is a contagious virus, masks must be worn. The long held Asian view is that wearing a mask is like a social contract to not only protect the wearer from contracting the contagion, but also to prevent the masked person from spreading the infection to others.
Indeed as more was learned about the Covid-19 virus, it became clear that people could carry the virus asymptomatically for weeks and unknowingly spread the disease. By early April, the best defense against asymptomatic spread of the virus was determined to be, surprise surprise, the low tech cloth mask. The rules for mask wearing differ somewhat by County, but by and large the face mask recommendation made a sharp about face from discouraged, to highly encouraged or even mandatory seemingly overnight. The biggest change was one of intent. The mask was now meant to primarily prevent the wearer from spreading the disease, not from catching it.
While a few people were angry at the dramatically changing advice about masks, most got on board right away. Making and wearing a mask was something they could Do to fight the pandemic, rather than sit powerless at home. Because industry-standard N95 masks were needed on the front lines, people were encouraged to make their own mask at home. The call went out and was answered with DIY YouTube videos, volunteers gathering leftover quilting cloth and elastic from neighbors and sewing up a storm, and MacGyver like no-sew options using cut up tee shirts and coffee filters. Wearing a face mask rapidly became a de rigueur part of the Shelter in Place trousseau–sweatpants, sloppy tee, mullet hair and a statement face mask. The range of mask styles is astonishing. From a simple bandana to somber black to wild pink polka dot to surgical blue, all can be found on a simple trip to the grocery store or Farmer’s Market. But what is not found, is a bare face.
When the mask order first was enacted, I heard someone laugh about how two months ago if they walked into a bank wearing a face mask they would have been arrested. Now if they enter a bank NOT wearing a mask, they can be arrested. Funny how the pandemic has changed our public faces.
Submitted by Margaret Ma, Santa Clara County