A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to California for depositions in a case that had not been continued (but would be before I returned). I wore a face mask because of a chronic fear of recirculated air in an airplane.
The flight out was approximately 30 percent full and the return flight, six days later, was about 10 percent full. I was also only one of four passengers wearing a mask on the flight back to Charlotte. On both flights, I felt uncomfortable. First, there is discomfort in having the warmth of breath constantly on my face; and secondly, there was the natural self-conscious feeling of being part of a noticeable minority. However, fear overcame my vanity.
There has been a theme voiced repeatedly that masks are not necessary for people who do not have coronavirus symptoms. Then there was the official line spouted by federal officials, who said people who hoarded medical-grade face masks during a national shortage put health care providers at risk for infection. The surgeon general, Jerome Adams, had tweet-yelled, “Seriously people — Stop buying masks! They are not effective in preventing the general public from catching Coronavirus.”
Then there began a sea change on the whole subject. When there were just a handful of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., it seemed appropriate to urge people to leave the masks for health care workers who really needed them. But we now have more evidence suggesting that people can spread COVID-19 before they even know they are infected and must isolate themselves. Also, since there is no shortage of do-it-yourself face mask tutorials online, regular people can cover their faces without depriving a doctor or nurse of much needed high-end protection.
Of all the things that government has asked us to do — not shake hands, stay at home, keep 6 feet away from other people — wearing face protection is perhaps the most culturally alien to Americans. We just don’t do that unless we are making an armed robbery or the temperature has dropped below zero.
But there are signs that all these steps, as uncomfortable as they may be, seem to be working to slow the spread of COVID-19 infections in Washington state and in California. If covering my face in public will help to flatten the COVID-19 curve even further, then I’ll be wearing my mask not only on the next trip to California but to the grocery store as well.
First, it was China and Japan who took the lead, and now, Eastern Europe has moved aggressively on the face mask front. Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic, while wearing a face mask, took the oath during the inaugural session of the new Parliament in Bratislava last month. Jena, a city in eastern Germany, announced last week that within several days it will be compulsory to wear a mask in supermarkets and on public transit. Slovakia, along with several of its neighbors, began a push for residents to wear them. In fact, when President Zuzana Caputová swore in the country’s new governing coalition last month, each new member of the country’s highest echelon of power — including new Prime Minister Igor Matovic — pledged their oath of office through a mask.
And the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, said that he would like to see the U.S. follow their example. On Sunday, he encouraged President Trump to wear a simple cloth mask and “try tackling coronavirus the Czech way.”
A couple of tips. A face mask can be homemade. It simply needs to cover the nose and mouth. Old dress shirts, especially with a tight weave, will work. Bandannas are OK, and they work better if double layered. Then after a day’s use, it’s a good idea to give them a rinse in rubbing alcohol, which will kill any bacteria or virus. The mask will then be ready for the next day’s usage. Of course, if you can find some outrageously colorful cloth, you can also make a helluva fashion statement.
Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary.