Until some four weeks ago, I had worn a mask in public exactly once in my life. As a young, penniless graduate student, I came down with viral pneumonia while some 1,000 miles from home. I had been on a work trip, and the only way to get home was to climb into a crowded airplane and suffer the misery of a long, uncomfortable flight. I was sick, though, and risked endangering the health of not just the poor souls seated next to me but many others as well.
So I did what I thought any conscientious citizen of the air should do: I bought a mask and wore it proudly. The side-eye from my fellow passengers was palpable, and ironic: I knew they thought I couldn’t trust them, but in truth they couldn’t trust me. One fellow seated across the aisle from me made a light-hearted joke about what a germaphobe I must be. I told him why I was wearing it and he thanked me profusely. But there was no real heroism that day: I was only doing what I ought to have done.
COVID-19 is a peculiar virus, though, in that many people who are infected don’t know they have it and thus become unwitting carriers. We are all now acutely aware of what it means to be “asymptomatic,” a word that two months ago was no part of our regular vocabulary. While the stay-in-place orders from city, county and state have significantly diminished the spread, the conditions of the novel coronavirus haven’t changed: As we Wacoans start to step out into more local businesses and places of commerce, we risk not only being infected — but infecting others, without even realizing it. The same hazards that were there before the stay-in-place orders are still with us.
Which is why we should all wear masks if we leave our homes. It’s true that only N95 masks will effectively keep the virus from coming in and infecting us, which is why our doctors, nurses and others who are in close proximity to those who are known to be infected need them. But there’s evidence that masks of any variety can keep significant quantities of the virus from going out and so prevent us from infecting others. And given that most of us won’t know we’re infected when we have COVID-19 until it’s too late, minimizing how many respiratory droplets we leave in public places is crucial.
A number of academics from various fields have effectively compiled the data. In brief: One study indicated that wearing a regular cotton mask reduced the viral load in the respiratory droplets we release when we speak and breath 36 times. That won’t necessarily prevent someone from being infected — but it might mean they have a milder case. Every country in the world that has defeated coronavirus has seen near-universal mask-wearing. Austria and Czechia both implemented social-distancing requirements at the same time — but Czechia required masks, while Austria did not. Czechia’s curve flattened, while Austria’s did not — until they too implemented masks.
Even small reductions in the number of people whom each of us infects make a difference when spread across an entire society. Some models show that 80% of people wearing masks could effectively halt the spread of COVID-19 altogether. Even if that’s too optimistic, a slower spread of infections means it will be easier for our public health department to trace contacts and quarantine exposed individuals. That allows us to protect those who are most vulnerable among us while we return to the work we need to do to feed and shelter our families.
It’s true that masks are inconvenient. As the weather heats up they will become especially uncomfortable. Yet those inconveniences are fairly minor for most of us when compared to the radical disruption the stay-in-place order has introduced into our lives and community. Covering our faces for a season is a small cost to pay for the opportunity to go out again in public.
Indeed, requirements to wear a mask might be necessary for us citizens and consumers to have the confidence to enter crowded spaces again. Walking into a place of commerce and seeing employees wearing masks helps me know immediately that they’re taking the safety of their customers with the utmost seriousness. Seeing other customers wearing face coverings not only reminds each of us to engage in social distancing but gives us a strange sense of solidarity. When we see our neighbors wearing a mask while going about their business, we know that we are standing together to protect those in our community who are most vulnerable to this terrible disease.
The governor’s recent executive order prohibited municipalities from imposing requirements on citizens to wear masks in public. Perhaps that’s just as well: We all changed our behavior before the stay-in-place order was issued as well. Information and encouragement can go a long ways toward helping us change our behavior. Yet the governor left room for businesses to impose their own requirements. And they should. If Waco businesses want to encourage us to enter their spaces, they should take the extraordinary step of asking that people suit up with a face-covering before they walk in the door. If masks are not going to be imposed, we should get creative in how we can encourage their use in order to avoid a second wave of cases and more devastating stay-in-place orders.
And if Waco businesses won’t take the lead, then it will be up to each of us to shoulder the responsibility of protecting our neighbors by ourselves. That would be OK, too. Wacoans over the past several weeks have shown that we are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to keep those around us from being infected. So I invite you, reader, to join me and #maskupwaco.