Austin at Large: How to Wear a Mask
Constructive thoughts from the near side of the curve
One random fact about me: I can sew. (One of my first jobs as a teen was in a fabric store, is why.) Not very well, mind you, but better than most of my family and well enough to have made my kid’s wizard robes and some curtains and a teepee for a birthday party (yes, we were less woke back then, sorry). And now, masks.
My sewing machine has been extricated from the most inaccessible storage space in my small old house, so I can get with the program now recommended by the CDC and Austin Public Health. Living with a nurse availed me of one single surgical mask that I’ve now worn too many times. I know I could just wrap a scarf around my head, but that feels like cheating, since I can sew.
Our new favorite TV doctor, Interim Health Authority Mark Escott, told reporters this week that his “expectation is [that wearing a mask] will transition from a recommendation to a requirement.” Making masks mandatory – he says the incoming data on COVID-19 hospitalizations will determine the timing – will get us sooner to the far side of the curve and may be necessary to keep us there. “If we can mitigate the spread further, we can open businesses sooner,” Escott said.
That was on Monday, and on Tuesday the City Council was told to expect 25% unemployment as we slide toward the bottom of the COVIDepression of 2020, aka the Trumpression. The Austin metro area, as has become lore, barely felt the 2008 financial crisis, relatively speaking. Most millennials, and all post-millennials, my kid included, have no reference point for what a big bust looks like around here, let alone a pandemic. They should get used to wearing masks.
Austin remains a young city, and the young are early adopters of new trends, and the digital environment in which we now live and where you’re reading this is a variation of many Austinites’ prior realities, not a whole new reality. It’s also become a more global city, with more people who have lived through busts and pandemics elsewhere and may have brought their masks with them. But I’m guessing that for many of y’all, the idea of wearing a mask routinely is weird and distressing.
At least in my world, it’s understood that the impact of social distancing and intermittent isolation on our mental and emotional health is real and not a joke, and that sheltering in place is not a staycation or funemployment. I sure as hell don’t feel like getting crafty in my free time, and I’m far more of a homebody than a lot of people. Making a few masks for my family to use is a duty, and a chore, and not like making a Halloween costume.
Wearing masks will be necessary, though, and not just to reopen the bars and restaurants and shops (those service jobs account for about half of that 25% unemployment estimate) but to reestablish face-to-face contact and freedom of movement, without which people are literally losing their minds. Masks don’t offset the need for six-foot social distancing – Escott made sure to emphasize that – but they could give us our city back, at some level, at some point. I’m sure many of us would go out with a panty on our heads (H/T Raising Arizona) if it meant we could go out.
But again, it’s distressing to see people wearing masks. It signifies that an environment is unsafe, which makes people uncomfortable, and in normal times it also signifies – if you’re not providing health care – that you’re up to something shady and don’t want to be identified. There’s a reason that direct-action protesters, whether antifa or alt-right, wear masks, and why there are laws against wearing masks in public, and why Black and brown men have expressed that masks will make them less safe from the real, structural violence they face.
Or – and this is the reason why public health pros are often ambivalent about mandating mask-wearing – it signifies that you are sick and contagious and should be avoided, or shunned, or refused service, or worse. You have cooties. So it’s imperative, we are told, that everybody wear masks so that this stigma is reduced. It becomes a shared experience, an occasion for bonding and even some creativity. That means you, and me and my dusty, rusty sewing machine.
Predictably, perhaps, sensible guidelines on masking were among the casualties of President Apesh*t’s “plan” to pretend COVID-19 wasn’t happening and hope it went away on its own. For a long time, this conversation has been confused by back-and-forth niggling about whether anything short of an N95 respirator would protect you from somebody else’s evil respiratory droplets, and since we don’t have enough of those to go around, what’s the point?
We all don’t wash our hands properly either, though, and that wasn’t justification to say, “Eh, screw it, you can’t be sterile all the time, so why not lick your fingers and touch your face.” The president may do that behind closed doors (ew) but no! We teach and help each other and try to do the best we can! The same is true of masking.
And it’s true even though – especially though – the main benefit of wearing a cloth mask is to protect other people from your droplets. You do have cooties. We all do. Or at least we should all act as if we do if we want to get out of this alive and well. And maybe take that guidance to heart more metaphorically, too. What comes out of your mouth could hurt somebody even if it doesn’t hurt you, even if you feel and think you’re “normal.” In stressful times like these, we all could make sure our masks are on tight.