Masking is being advised again

Last week, for the first time since the pandemic started, I went into a public place without wearing a mask. It was the occasion of some friends of mine visiting from out of town and the five of us went to a restaurant. It felt a little strange at first to be without a mask but the restaurant was only about half full and there were no people at the adjacent tables.

I am one of the few holdouts who are still wearing masks. But health experts are warning that we seem to be heading for some months where cases will rise for three kinds of viral infections (Covid-19, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and flu) and are recommending that people wear masks again in certain situations. This is going to be a hard sell since most people around the country (and apparently the world) have given up on them and live as if infectious diseases are things of the past.

But others share my concern.

“I would not go into a grocery store without a mask,” says John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley. “I wouldn’t go into rapid transit without a mask. I wouldn’t go into an airplane or be in an airport without a mask,” nor would he attend a crowded outdoor event such as a concert without one, Swartzberg says.

Still, after nearly three years of mixed messaging from officials, with many Americans seeming to have moved on from Covid – and a president who has said “the pandemic is over” even as hundreds die every day – will anyone listen?

The good news: “Masks work against Covid, masks work against RSV, masks work against influenza and masks work against other respiratory viruses,” Swartzberg says. “They really do work to help prevent people from getting infected and the consequences of that infection.

Abraar Karan, an infectious diseases expert at Stanford University, agrees – as do a number of studies, including a recent “natural experiment” comparing masking and non-masking schools in Boston.

“Masks will help to reduce risk of acquisition of viruses,” Karan says. “The better the mask that you use, the more effective it’ll be, depending on the fit and filtration of the mask” – with N95s, KN95s and KF94s offering good protection. His own experience speaks to their effectiveness: through years of treating Covid patients, he managed to avoid infection. “When I did get infected, it was actually from someone who was sick in my own home,” he says.

When it comes to Covid, he notes, vaccines work well against severe disease but are less effective against infection. Masks offer an important additional line of defense. As for other, less transmissible viruses such as flu and RSV, they “largely went away when we used mitigation” such as masking early in the pandemic, he says. After pulling back on such measures, however, “we’ve now seen an upswing”.

I do an intuitive personal risk-benefit calculation for all things to see if the pleasure that I might get from being somewhere without a mask is great enough to outweigh the increased risk. For example, I was invited to take part in a large bridge tournament held in this area in early January that will have people coming from all over the country. I declined because of the sense that it might well turn out to be a superspreader event overwhelmed any pleasure that I might get from participating. On the other hand, the pleasure of having an evening out in a restaurant with close friends whom I had not met in years was great enough to overcome my qualms of being in a public place without a mask, because I felt that the rise in risk was relatively small.

I carry masks in my car so that I always have one handy if needed. With my mask, I am usually an outlier in indoor public spaces, and wonder if my wearing one acts as a downer for people who would like to think that it is all over and are reminded by my presence that it is not. Then of course there are the ignorant crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene who think that someone wearing a mask should be condemned, even though it has nothing to do with them.

“So many people still wearing masks,” Greene tweeted, in apparent exasperation, on Monday. “I just want to ask you. If a pair of underwear, really thick ones, high quality cotton, can’t protect you from a fart, then how will a mask protect you from covid??”

And who says MAGA-world has no class?

Other Twitter users quickly cleared the air of Greene’s nonsense by explaining the obvious: The coronavirus is transmitted via liquid droplets expelled through coughing, while gas is … gas. They don’t react the same way when hitting a cloth barrier. (More specifically — according to the kind of research I never thought I’d have to do — the odor in flatulence comes from chemical molecules, which are far smaller than viruses, and so can permeate materials that viruses can’t.)

No one has said anything sneering to me about wearing a mask (this area is pretty liberal and tolerant) but even if they did, I would not care. In fact, I would be amused that these supposed defenders of people’s freedom to do what they damn well please irrespective of the needs and concerns of others are upset by my wearing a mask. Could it be that they are actually insecure about their feelings about masks and seeing someone wearing one reminds them of the fact that they may be needlessly risking their own health?


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Could it be that they are actually insecure about their feelings

    MAGAssholes seem to exist in a permanent state of enraged cognitive dissonance.

  2. billseymour says

    I have never quit wearing my N95 whenever I leave my apartment. I’ve been to a restaurant maybe ten or fifteen times since COVID became a thing, and I necessarily remove the mask when eating and drinking, but I tend to go when the restaurant is not crowded.

    I hardly ever see anyone else wearing a mask…maybe one or two folks at the grocery store or gas station, but even in Missouri’s Second Congressional District (gerrymandered solid Republican), I’ve never been looked at strangely as far as I know.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    Interestingly, there is a new study about why people get more colds and flu in winter months. Sorry, I don’t have a link, but it said that even after controlling for being in more confined spaces with other people during the winter, that did not sufficiently explain the increase. Instead, they point to special defences in our noses that help protect us but are severely disabled by colder temperatures inside our nasal cavities, even as little as a 7 degree decrease (this was an NPR piece and they did not specify Fahrenheit or Celsius). It was then pointed out that masks keep your nose warmer, thus even lesser quality masks may be very effective in warding off disease in the winter.

  4. says

    I had one woman make a big deal of fake coughing when I passed her in a crosswalk and she said, “You’ve got Covid now” but that’s the only weird experience I’ve had while masking. What annoys me more are the people who will come up right behind you in a grocery store, and for the most part I don’t think it’s maliciousness, but come on. I don’t expect the full six feet but a little space would be nice. They’re one of my big reasons for still wearing a mask.

    Anyway, I saw this linked this morning -- -- and read it, and while it touches on conspiracy theory (and the site is called World Socialist Web Site) I do think it makes some valid points as these were things I was thinking at the height of the pandemic -- a lot of people don’t care because those who are most likely to die should hurry up and do so instead of wasting valuable resources. After all, a lot of people who refused to do anything kept bringing up “comorbidities” as if that made it okay that they were dying.

  5. maggie says

    I never stopped masking and most of the people I see who still mask are seniors (like me) and the local doctors. In a crowded place such as the grocery store, I double mask. I could care less what people think about it and so far, most keep their opinions to their selves. So far, I have not come down with Covid but lots of people I know have by letting their guard down.

  6. lochaber says

    I really don’t get the outrage some people have over seeing someone else wearing a mask.

    If I were to be on public transit, just walking down the street, or even in a bar, and see someone come in wearing kneepads, a welding mask, and oven mits, I’d certainly think it’s odd, and maybe even be mildly curious, but nothing they are wearing threatens or even offends me, and I can’t imagine getting upset about it, let alone to the point of assaulting someone.

    I still remember the very beginning of this, when all the right-wing preppers were running around in N95s, respirators, and even fucking military gas masks…

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