Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He is senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last Thursday I drove down to the gas station to buy some minnows for bait. The crappies are spawning, the bass are jumping, and it’s prime fishing weather here in the Minnesota spring. I walked into the store with my bait bucket in hand and a cloth mask over my face, and quickly realized that while I was far from the only Minnesotan buying bait that night, I was the only one wearing a mask.
I got some looks. I bought my minnows. I talked maybe a bit too loudly with the cashier about research showing that masks work. I paid and said amiably, “The thing about these cheap masks is that they don’t protect me from you; they protect you from me. I’d hate to get anyone sick.”
Putting a slip of cloth over my mouth and nose before going shopping seems like a pretty small price to pay. But even though a strong silent majority of Americans support wearing masks, too many encounters around masking turn hostile. When mask wearing becomes a policing issue, marginalized people get punished. When mask wearing becomes political, then our partisanship will pull us apart just at the moment when we need to unite to stop this pandemic. But we already have all the tools we need built in to low-key and widely accepted societal norms. Let’s add “no masks” to the famous “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”
Covid-19 is a slippery foe, hiding and spreading for days before people who have been infected show any symptoms. But, according to experts studying the spread of Covid-19, our best understanding is that “respiratory droplets from infected individuals are a major mode of transmission,” especially from asymptomatic individuals. A basic cloth mask keeps enough of those droplets from spreading into the air where others can inhale them to dramatically reduce the spread of the disease, maybe ending the state of global pandemic.
Just as with social distancing, though, this kind of common-good masking only works if enough of us do it. Sadly, as the tensions described above show, the very same people who politicized shutdowns are now demanding we reopen without mandating masks, claiming that masking violates their bodily autonomy (it doesn’t), that masking is like being enslaved (it isn’t), or lying about having a disability and claiming that the Americans with Disabilities Act means they don’t have to wear a mask (that’s not how “reasonable accommodations” for disability works).
These tensions, if allowed to fester, might well make it impossible to bring masking levels up to the degree we need.
But the good news is that, just as with distancing, most Americans are ready to put on their masks. After all, we’re used to modifying our dress and behaviors to accommodate others. For my whole conscious life, I’ve known that I can’t just walk into a store without a shirt on, even though I can hang out in my backyard shirtless. When I’m alone at the kitchen table at home, sometimes I kick my shoes off and put my feet up on a vacant chair. When at a restaurant, I keep my shoes on. Following these norms is not kowtowing to tyranny. It’s just part of choosing to live in a society.
A huge majority of Americans are making that choice. It makes sense that people like the loudmouth in Costco who, according to local reports, posted a selfie-style video to Reddit (which he later deleted but which others downloaded and has now been shared widely) referring to those who wear masks as “sheep,” or men with guns who refuse masks will get the most attention, but the truth is that masking is popular. Besides, as my daughter says, they look super cool.
Not everyone is going to be able to wear masks right away, but the more we normalize wearing them, the better off we’ll be. Aaron Thomas wrote for the Boston Globe about being a black man in America and feeling unsafe wearing a makeshift mask for fear of being profiled as a criminal. He and others need those of us who can safely mask to lead the way and establish the norm.
Other people will never be able to wear masks. My son, a 13-year-old with Down syndrome and autism, will spread a cloth mask on his face and giggle, but will not hook it over his ears. For very young children, it’s a suffocation risk. Kids like mine may need permanent exemptions from masking, as will many others with a variety of disabilities that preclude masks. Fortunately, as long as we don’t let the people trying to misuse the ADA win, we don’t have to achieve 100% compliance. We can let disabled people shop so long as the rest of us help protect them.
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The technology is simple: a slip of cloth over your mouth and nose. The norms are even simpler, because you already know them, with a slight amendment. No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.