I don’t generally quote from my own Twitter feed—I keep my account private for a reason—but I can’t help digging up a gem from March 3 of this year, when I asserted, “Given the choice, I’d much prefer having coronavirus for a month than wearing a face mask for a year.”
While the exact context of that tweet is lost to history, I was obviously reacting to the growing epidemiological menace of COVID-19, which—as the date of the tweet indicates—was roughly one week away from effectively shutting down the United States until further notice.
Now that we are some six-to-eight weeks into this national self-quarantine (depending how you count) and can take a somewhat panoramic view of the early trajectory of this extraordinary societal experiment, it is worth pausing to notice how fast things have changed, and—more interestingly—how fast we, the people, have changed with them.
Specifically, let’s talk about masks.
While my aforementioned tweet-tantrum about preferring the virus itself to strapping a prophylactic around my face for an extended period can now be dismissed—with some justification—as the whiny, simplistic rantings of a selfish, short-sighted nincompoop, I fully stand by the sentiment as an accurate and rational reflection of my mindset—and the mindset of nearly all of my countrymen—at that particular moment in time.
As it happens, it was on the very morning of March 3 that I casually sauntered into the public library downtown—which was open and fully-functioning—to cast my vote in the Massachusetts presidential primary. It was that evening—“Super Tuesday,” as we called it—that Joe Biden took the stage in a very densely-packed auditorium in California to declare victory—a speech briefly interrupted by a small gang of protesters whom Symone Sanders, a senior Biden aide, charged at like a heat-seeking missile and yanked forcibly offstage.
That was the universe in which we all operated in the first week of March: One with lots and lots of people freely moving about to their heart’s desire with nary a care in the world for their health or personal space. While we were all quite aware of the deadly pathogen that had ravaged the likes of China and Italy and had officially migrated into the United States, on the morning of Super Tuesday there was a grand total of 63 confirmed cases in a nation of 328 million, and terms like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” had not remotely entered the national lexicon.
As such, the notion of large numbers of seemingly healthy Americans walking around in public with face coverings—voluntarily or by government decree—struck most of us as just a hair short of crazy for a good long while—a feeling aided, in no small part, by our country’s own leading health experts, who advised that such accoutrements are unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. Lest we forget the now-infamous February 29 tweet by Surgeon General Jerome Adams, which began, “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” (As I said, best to keep your Twitter feed to yourself.)
Smash cut to tomorrow, May 6, when in my home state of Massachusetts—per an order by Governor Charlie Baker—all residents will be required to wear some kind of face covering whenever they are in a public place and unable to keep a safe distance from others. With temperatures in New England already inching into the 70s, that’ll be just about everywhere soon enough.
Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? What was unthinkable yesterday may well become inevitable tomorrow, and it turns out that near-universal use of makeshift face masks is a signal example of this reality here in Coronaland in May 2020.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been measuring the nature of this pandemic largely from my visits to the supermarket—i.e., the only commercial establishment I’ve patronized regularly in the last month-and-a-half—and I still can’t shake the fact that during a Stop & Shop run in early April, I observed maybe 20 percent of my fellow customers masked up as they carted from one aisle to the next, while on a subsequent trip less than a week later, the figure was probably closer to 80 percent. In a mere matter of days, the act of wearing a mask in shared spaces had swung from being an odd, conspicuous affectation to simple common sense and a public health necessity.
One day, the weirdos were the ones who concealed the lower half of their faces. The next day, the weirdos were the ones who didn’t.
Before you ask: No, I myself did not strap on a mask on that earlier jaunt through Stop & Shop—even though I had a perfectly good one in my pocket, ready for action—and yes, by the latter trip, I changed my tune entirely and all-too-willingly complied.
And why was that? Easy: Because, in both cases, I didn’t want to be the weirdo. Because I didn’t want to be judged and glared at by my neighbors for diverging from the social mores of the moment. Because I just wanted to get through the checkout line and back to my car without causing some kind of confrontation. Because for all my so-called independence and First Amendment absolutism, the truth is that my only real ambition in life is to not get into an argument with a stranger more than one or two times per decade.
It was in that spirit that I decided this past Sunday—the most deliciously summerlike day of the year so far—to pre-empt Governor Baker’s order by a few days and put on my mask every time I go for a bike ride. While I live in a suburban area where keeping a six-foot distance from anything is relatively easy to do, I realized there is no particular downside to modeling responsible behavior for others, and it turns out you get a lot more smiles from pedestrians and fellow bikers with a piece of fabric on your face, precisely because of the message it sends.
That message, roughly speaking, can be boiled down to, “Your life is more valuable than my comfort, and it’s worth the occasional itchiness to ensure I don’t accidentally murder my fellow human beings with an invisible bug that might spew forth from my big mouth.”
Even in a country as thoughtless and selfish as ours, that seems like a solid credo with which to ride out this wave of disruption and uncertainty until we arrive wherever it is that we’re headed.