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We all need to be more tolerant about masks

To wear a mask in public, or not, that is the question.

I don’t like to use a mask, but I choose to wear one, especially in enclosed public spaces, because I believe it provides some protection for myself and for others. Although coronavirus particles are tiny and can pass through mask material, masks do help reduce the dosage by capturing larger droplets that are emitted, especially when people talk, sing, laugh, cough or sneeze or otherwise behave in a human manner.

I used to get mad at the “selfish” people I saw who weren’t using masks in the grocery store and other places. I watched as a masked older gentleman tried to start a conversation with an unmasked woman in the Muncy post office line. “Strange world we live in,” he commented. She snapped back, “I don’t believe any of this. It will all be over when the President is re-elected in November!” My blood pressure soared at her rude and blatantly political response, but I said nothing, and kept my distance. The coronavirus does not care what political party you are in.

I decided not to confront unmasked people. The last thing I wanted was to get in a shouting match and breathe in their spittle. If a person was not wearing a mask in public, I figure they are probably participating in dangerous activities, like going to a crowded bar.

But then, a conversation my wife and I had with our neighbor, a retired nurse, made me reconsider my attitude toward unmasked people. “Do you actually know anybody who has the disease?” she asked. I don’t, although my wife has a work colleague whose husband became seriously ill with COVID-19. “I don’t know what to believe in the news,” she said.

All of us have heard of celebrities who have come down with the coronavirus, but in a recent national survey nearly half the people in this country do not personally know someone who has been sickened. The percentage is probably much higher in our region since we have not been very affected by the virus thus far, although COVID-19 cases have steadily increased in Lycoming County by about five per day since July 1. When the coronavirus spreads somewhere, and local hospital capacity is threatened, mask wearing and other preventative social distancing measures increase in response. It’s human nature, or at least American human nature, to be skeptical of government directives.

My neighbor also questioned the wearing of masks if you are healthy. I pointed out that the disease can be transmitted by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people. She responded, “There must be something wrong with the test if people without symptoms are positive.” I don’t think she is correct, since the coronavirus has such a long incubation period before showing symptoms, but it was a reasonable question on her part.

At first there wasn’t good evidence about how the illness was transmitted and if that transmission could be reduced or prevented by the use of masks. Some public health experts initially told us not to use masks, because they were afraid the public would hoard the N-95 medical masks needed by health care professionals. Now, there is a consensus among public health experts that even homemade cloth masks can help. If everyone wore masks and practiced social distancing, we would be able to open up our businesses and schools sooner, and keep them open, like most other countries. Our political leaders have not been consistent in their messages, either, although many are now trying to de-politicize the mask issue. The President has mocked mask wearers but recently allowed himself to be photographed in public in a mask.

There are also those who can’t wear masks for legitimate medical reasons, although it seems to me that these medically vulnerable people would want to avoid congested public places. Starbucks and other businesses have a right to require masks to protect their customers and employees, but the Starbucks barista could have possibly defused the situation with the asthmatic customer, who accused him of discriminating against her by refusing service, by asking her to wait outside and bringing her the order.

I think I understand now why some people don’t wear masks, even though I don’t agree with them. Several months ago I decided that if an unmasked person is too close, I will move away or if that is not possible, I will ask, “Please give me some space.” Well, I haven’t had to ask for space a single time. In my experience, unmasked people in our community are usually polite, often saying, “excuse me,” and moving out of my way. Most of them are at least practicing this limited form of social distancing.

Don’t assume because I’m wearing a mask that I am making a political statement. Don’t mistake my healthy respect for this novel virus as “fear.” I only use a mask because it will help protect my family and loved ones, and yours. You may think it is unnecessary but please accept my choice, as I will accept yours, as long as you give me enough space.

Mask wearers — let’s be more tolerant of those who choose not to wear masks. Do not assume the worst. Set a good example. Be polite and respectful. Some may come around, especially when the virus becomes “real” to them, but trying to guilt or shame them into wearing a mask does not work. If you must proselytize, ask them to read a first person account from a doctor or nurse on the front line in COVID-19 hotspots, treating desperately sick people from all ages and walks of life.

It doesn’t get much more real than that.

Treatments are improving. Hopefully we’ll have a vaccine sooner than later and then we won’t need the damned masks. Let’s all gather then and throw them into a big bonfire.

Kevin McJunkin is retired as an environmental planner for Lycoming County.

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