The Coronavirus Mask Charade Continues
When he announced on May 1 that masks would be worn in public places, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker was emphatic.
"We view this as common sense. This is going to be basically a way of life. No ifs, no ands, no buts, no doubts."
However, doubts are showing up.
First, Baker's order said to wear face coverings when in public places and unable to keep a social distance of six feet. Why'd he pick six feet? There is no research showing that six feet means anything in a public space.
That six-foot idea is an arbitrary guess that was "conjured up out of nowhere," according to Professor Robert Dingwall, a top scientific adviser to the British government, which like the U.S. has adopted six feet as a safe social distance. The authorities guessed that it might be a good distance because some study had shown that a cough could travel six feet in a tightly closed dead-air space. The relevance of that to everyday life — who knows?
Anyone claiming the six-foot rule is not arbitrary should explain why the World Health Organization suggests a three-foot distance and why Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Finland have adopted that rule, and why Germany and other countries use a 4.5-foot rule. Does the coronavirus behave differently in Europe?
Second, the order never defined public places. Did it mean indoors or outdoors? No one knew, and Baker probably didn't know himself. It seemed as if he was talking about indoor spaces with other people nearby. However, upon hearing Baker's poorly defined order, anxious people extended it and ran with it. Suddenly, we saw multitudes wearing masks and bandannas everywhere, even when it didn't make sense because no one was around. They jogged and rode bikes with them on, walked in the parks with them, wore them in their cars. When crossing a street alone, carrying groceries home, or even climbing mountains, they burdened themselves with all kinds of masks.
The disease isn't contagious in the open air, but the mask-wearing anxiety sure is.
Your grandmother would guess that the breezy air must be pretty safe, and she'd be right, according to Dr. Christopher Gill, associate professor at B.U.'s School of Public Health. "In most situations, infection in the out of doors is very unlikely. CV19 is transmitting through close contact, largely indoors."
"There is certainly no cloud of virus-laden droplets hanging around [outdoors]," said Lidia Morawska, director of Australia's International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health. Infectious droplets would be quickly diluted in outdoor air, she said. "It is safe to go for a walk outdoors and jog and not to worry about the virus in the air."
But the outdoor mask-wearing has hardened into a freakish compulsion, based on nothing, expressing only anxiety and terror.
Not knowing about this disease, people anxiously want to do something. Eight weeks ago, it was buying mountains of toilet paper, and today it's needless masks. There's social pressure — the unanimity is worrisome. And Governor Charlie Baker is looking at you. And there are busybodies who will be masked when they light into you. Yikes.
Plus, people are ignorant of basic science. They don't understand what a gas is, how active it is, how the atmosphere works, any of it. They don't know that a cubic foot of air, about the volume of a small microwave oven, contains billions and billions and billions of molecules swirling continuously. They know that breezes blow pollen and dust around all the time, but they also think the much tinier virus particles can hang in the air maliciously, waiting to infect them. Outdoor mask-wearing is pointless — not needed and just superstition — because the outdoor air moves and is effectively sterile. You might as well wear an amulet to ward off witches.
Mask-wearing is not benign, either. (1) Masked faces feel hostile because you can see no relaxation or smile in the person you're facing. (2) People feel disconnected, and a national survey shows that depression and suicidal thoughts are way up. (3) Public misbehavior is amplified when actors are anonymous — riots, anyone?
People make mistakes, but rigidly sticking with a mistake is inexcusable. Governor Baker and others like him need to say, at a press conference soon: We have looked at the distancing data more closely, and have concluded we'll go with the European standard of three feet distance, which will help our people and our restaurants. No masks need be worn in the open air.
Yes, we all want to protect the old people in nursing homes, but the fragile old people are relying on us healthy folks to be rational, not hysterical. When you wear a mask in the grocery store milk aisle, how does that charade help the fragile folks confined to nursing homes? It does nothing for them, and its stupidity insults the seriousness of their situation.
Speaking of grocery stores, I miss talking with the checkout girls and ladies in my local store, the ones who wear maroon smocks. I know them and want to see their faces, whether relaxed or tired at the end of a shift. I really miss their faces and smiles, and I see no evidence that anyone is healthier because we are hidden from each other. In truth, we are lonely for each other. This mad masked isolation helps no one.
John G. Maguire is a science writer and former director of Boston University's Program for Reporting on Science and Medicine. He blogs at readablewriting.com.