“How can you tell the difference between a person wearing a face mask to protect from coronavirus and a bandit?” my friend asked. “You can’t.” A little mask humor.

On April 3, when Gov. Jared Polis made the request of Coloradans to wear face masks in public, I panicked a bit as I didn’t have one. But moments later, The Gazette’s Lindsey Smith posted a video showing how to make a mask out of a bandana and two ponytail holders in under a minute. I could do that, I thought. Instead, I just used a scarf.

I finally got a “real” cloth mask last week after asking a sewing-talented friend in another state to make one for me and mail it. I couldn’t find any in nearby stores or online.

My first test-drive of the mask was to the grocery store. I’d rather avoid the store altogether but I’d let my cupboards, fridge and TP stocks run low, and delivery was not available for days.

I’d say 80% of the customers were wearing masks, and all but two store employees had them on. I resisted the urge to ask those not masked why they didn’t wear one. None of my business. I gave them space. I shopped with a list and quickly.

It’s not just our governor who recommends donning a non-medical-grade face mask in public. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends those who are in public settings wear a cloth face covering to prevent transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, along with social distancing measures.

Soon after the governor’s request, my social media filled with comments about how a cloth face mask can’t stop a virus. That may be true, but wearing one has side effects. For me, the mask keeps me from touching my face (a behavior that can transmit germs). Also, I was more aware of those around me who were wearing masks and were not. I didn’t speak to strangers as much as usual. I was more apt to keep my distance.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, a stem-cell biologist, said in a recent Q-and-A in the New Yorker, “You can’t force people to adopt behaviors in this country, although you can make it very uncomfortable for people who show up without masking because of social pressures.”

The social pressure — which may include public or online shaming — is real.

Author Jennifer Weiner wrote in a New York Times column, ”The Seductive Appeal of Pandemic Shaming,” last week: “I’m not alone in my fury, or my impulses. My Nextdoor.com is writhing with finger-pointing; my Facebook groups are roiling with gotchas. I saw a supermarket cashier without a mask! I saw a man use an ATM pad with his bare hands! My idiot cousin is posting conspiracy theories! My mom went and got a pedicure!

I felt a twinge of that righteousness during my inaugural masked grocery trip. How dare the two guys shopping in the paper goods aisle not wear masks! Didn’t that employee know the dangers of being in contact with so many customers?

It’s easy to feel that way when you’re behind a mask, or a computer or phone screen. You feel entitled to say things that maybe are not really your place to say. No one can see your face, after all.

“Since the Stay At Home badge was released on Instagram, my stories feed feels like a monotonous reel of people cycling through the park, pointing at all of the other people in the park, asking why they aren’t social distancing. People, after all, are very good at giving themselves the benefit of the doubt, but don’t extend the courtesy to others,” stated an op-ed piece in The Guardian last week, ”What does shaming people who don’t social distance actually achieve?”

On a community Facebook page, recent mask comments ranged from “People without masks shouldn’t be allowed inside the store” to “Have them all arrested.”

I put the question on Facebook and Twitter: “Have you felt shamed for not wearing a mask in public, or have you scolded others for not doing so?” The answers showed I wasn’t alone in feeling judged when not wearing a mask, and perhaps also emboldened now that I have one.

One friend said, “I definitely have felt that shame. No one actually said anything to me for not wearing a mask, but I felt like I was being heavily judged by others who were wearing their masks. I feel much more comfortable now that I have one to wear (safety-wise and socially).”

Another commented, “I feel better knowing that I’m complying with what is recommended.”

A friend who posted a photo of herself wearing skull mask said, “I wear a mask and it looks a little intimidating. I get a lot of double-takes, but I don’t care. Someone even went as far as saying I better not walk in the bank like that, not that we can go inside the bank right now anyway. The way I see it, it’s no worse than those walking around with bandanas looking like Wild West bandits. I mind my own business, so I do not make comments or scold people for not wearing a mask. I do give them a hard side-eye though. I also have a lot of self-commentary about people who wear masks wrong, i.e. under their nose, under their chin or around their neck.”

A friend who works in an eatery said, “I do scold my coworkers for not wearing them properly, constantly pulling them down. If they’re not going to wear them correctly then don’t wear them at all there are others who may need them.”

There’s definitely some anger out there. Another friend Tweeted: “Rather than arrest people defying bans on gathering in large crowds, police should spray them from a safe distance with a dye that won’t come off for a few months, so their friends, family and the rest of us can know to stay clear from them.” Yikes.

My Nextdoor account in the last few weeks teemed with heated debates about being “required” to mask up in public. As I write this, it’s populating with posts that call for a moratorium on mask comments. Perhaps we’re getting tired of arguing. Imagine that.

Bottom line, it’s not hard to cover your face when you’re out in public — which isn’t much for most of us these days. It’s recommended as we try to flatten the curve of this deadly virus. Count yourself lucky if you’re not on the front lines, constantly exposed to germs right now.

It’s also not difficult to keep your scolding to yourself. Save your breath for a thank you to those who risk their lives to keep us going, from medical professionals to grocery cashiers.

Michelle Karas has called the Pikes Peak region home for more than four years. She has been editor of Pikes Peak Newspapers since June. Contact Michelle with column or story ideas, feedback and letters to the editor at michelle.karas@pikespeaknewspapers.com.

Editor, Pikes Peak Newspapers

In June 2019, Michelle became editor of the four Pikes Peak Newspapers: Pikes Peak Courier; The Tribune; and the Cheyenne and Woodmen editions. A Penn State journalism graduate, she joined the Gazette staff in 2015.

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