My local Starbucks is happy to see me, it says, as long as I wear a face mask.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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My local Starbucks reopened to foot traffic last week. A sign on the door said to come on in, I’ve been missed. It also said that if you’re not wearing a face mask, one would be issued to you. In my county, wearing a face covering in any building is required by order, and most grocery stores and shops demanded facial coverings anyway. A man followed me into the coffee shop, his face as naked as when he got out of bed. Nobody said a word. Nobody offered him a mask.

As I shop for food and supplies in my area, I can feel the mood lighten around me. The days are getting brighter and warmer. More businesses are reopening. Even as the US builds on its grimmest milestone yet — over 100,000 people confirmed dead from COVID-19 — I can’t help but feel that a false sense of security has taken hold around me, a seeming belief that wearing a face covering might keep someone from getting sick. 

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases may be shrinking in some areas, but in others they’re rising. Like where I live. Like Wisconsin. As we face a potential second wave of coronavirus cases, the sense I have that people are beginning to relax, or just grow tired of nonstop vigilance, worries me. 

Keep track of the coronavirus pandemic.

This store makes its face mask expectations pretty clear.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Here’s what I mean. There was the Starbucks barista in a flimsy mask who ventured beyond the Plexiglas divider and leaned in to bring me my drink, our faces inches apart. Fantastic service, ordinarily, but would she have done the same if we weren’t both wearing a mask? Then there was the man at a jam-packed Costco who removed his face mask inside the store to take a sip from a water bottle. And another man a few feet away whose cloth mask covered his mouth only, his nostrils jutting out like binoculars. Let’s not forget the woman in Trader Joe’s who crossed the aisle right in front of me to grab an item from the shelf instead of waiting for me to move on, bringing our faces within spitting distance — if it weren’t for our masks, hers a cotton panel draped across her nose and mouth, mine conformed to my face, but so oversize I can’t read my phone screen if I glance down.

Are these signs that people are becoming so comfortable wearing face masks that they feel invincible? Or is it more a function of human nature that warm weather and loosening restrictions make the invisible threat of serious disease somehow less urgent? 

I have a personal need to be cautious, to keep from acquiring or transmitting the coronavirus. My mother. Physically fragile (please don’t tell her I said that,) but a woman of inner reserves who rises to the occasion, my septuagenarian mom is a recent widow. 

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Dad died on Feb. 2 — from cancer, not the coronavirus — robbing Mom of her life partner for 54 years. During a time when the physical embrace of family and friends would otherwise help ease the hollow loss, seniors are urged to isolate to stay safe. My brother and I do her shopping, help with chores, keep her company and tackle the unpleasant paperwork that must be dealt with in the wake of Dad’s death. 

Every time go inside, I’m forced to ask myself, what else am I bringing in with me? If Mom were to get COVID-19 and my carelessness was the cause… that’s not even a sentence I want to finish.

Face masks aren’t a silver bullet

Face masks caught on for a reason. With a plea for civilians to stop buying medical masks and donate the ones they had, cloth masks you can easily make at home or buy became the preferred way to cover up. But medical professionals have never promised that a face mask alone can keep you from getting sick with COVID-19 or passing it on to others.

In fact, every recommendation emphasizes the need to also socially distance and thoroughly wash your hands in addition to covering your face and mouth.

The practice of wearing a nonmedical mask in the US as a guard against the coronavirus began before the official recommendation issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A grassroots effort to do something coincided with a growing desperation within the medical community over the severe shortage of medical-grade masks like N95 and surgical masks. The surge in cases of the highly contagious COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals, necessitating a spike in the number of N95 masks needed to protect exhausted clinicians, nurses and staff.

I’m all for businesses reopening — responsibly. Where I live, that means wearing a face mask.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Here’s what we know about nonmedical face masks. They’ve been found to help block large particles that you might eject unknowingly through sneezing, coughing, singing, speaking and spitting. Face coverings may be more effective at protecting others from you than the other way around, though common sense dictates that you’re probably better off wearing one than not. They work better when they conform to your face without gaps, but cloth coverings aren’t designed to fit your face the same way that a medical-grade mask like an N95 can, and obviously the masks you make at home or buy from vendors online aren’t certified by an agency the way N95s are. 

Most importantly, wearing a nonmedical face mask is no guarantee that you won’t acquire or transmit the virus. It isn’t a force field. It’s simply one measure in a group of recommended behaviors to help lessen the spread of disease among communities, especially vulnerable populations more likely to be killed by COVID-19, like older people and those with underlying conditions. Like my mom.

Face masks won’t be as effective if you remove them in a crowd, and expose your nose and mouth. There’s no current evidence that they can block small respiratory particles containing the virus. N95 masks, meanwhile, are known to slow the spread of respiratory particles, though even they may not be able to fully stop transmission. It’s possible that some behaviors could still increase your risk of acquiring or transmitting the coronavirus even if you do wear a mask, say — and I’m speculating here — if you sit inches away from someone for several hours in an unventilated room, or attend a crowded music festival.

Look, I don’t love wearing face masks, either, but I also don’t want to get sick — or unknowingly pass it along.

James Martin/CNET

Months ago, when I first wrote about the topic that cloth face masks aren’t a silver bullet against getting the coronavirus (without a vaccine, there is no silver bullet), some people became angry and upset, including people I know and respect. My friend whose mom helped make cloth masks early on, assembly-line style, to donate to hospitals (admirable work). A nurse who told me that I had no idea how desperate the situation was in hospitals (she’s right). The chorus of those saying that anything is better than nothing (I don’t disagree). 

There were also people who thanked me. One friend with cancer who was worried that misinformation would lead people to believe they could do anything they want as long as they wear a mask. Another friend who works in healthcare and was sick with the virus, who appreciated the distinction being made between N95, surgical masks (PDF) and cloth masks. A politician with a passion for public health and education, who wanted to share the limitations of cloth masks with constituents so they wouldn’t depend on masks alone to protect their health.

I’m not a virologist. I’m not a scientist. I am a concerned civilian who dutifully wears a face mask in businesses as mandated by local law. But even after it isn’t, I will probably continue to wear a mask in crowded public places or with people outside my household until a vaccine becomes available — for the sake of my mom if not for myself. A nonmedical face mask may not keep me from acquiring or transmitting illness, but if it helps keep me aware that the coronavirus is an ongoing threat — even when the sun is shining and I long to return to “normal” life — I’m buying in.

More to know about face masks

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.



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