When the coronavirus first emerged as an issue in February, I contemplated whether it would be useful to wear a mask. Some people in New York City were wearing them, and the prices and availability on Amazon suggested supply issues. It didn’t seem worth the bother.
In March, as the emergency heated up, my wife asked me about getting masks. Our leadership at the time said that masks weren’t necessary for most of us, and we should refrain from using or acquiring them to save them for health care workers who really needed them. Most of the masks were (and are) made in China, and the supply chain had been disrupted. Overall, it didn’t seem worth the trouble, and as the drug stores all had signs advising ‘No Masks Available,’ I let it be.
On closer examination, the blue masks that were commonly worn by health care workers and now making a broader appearance aren’t meant to protect the wearer from the environment. The original use case for the masks, which is also true for Covid, is that it contains the wearer’s emissions, which may carry the virus even though the wearer has no symptoms. Health care workers commonly work with people whose immune systems are compromised, so they wear the masks to protect their patients from whatever microbes they may be carrying.
If you want to protect yourself from the virus with a mask, you need N95 or better, and if you’re a guy, you need to be clean-shaven. When I got tested for Covid a couple of months ago, the doctor performing the test appeared in a bunny suit with a full face covering, which is probably as good as one can do while still being in the same room.
My wife had been following events in Korea, and since I was reluctant to run out and buy masks, she made up her own, following instructions on YouTube, from paper towels, adhesive tape, and elastic strapping. Apparently, the Korean government had donated much of the country’s mask supply to China, so Koreans needing masks had to improvise. My wife’s masks were comfortable and didn’t look overly dorky; I still carry a couple in my bag in case the mask I’m wearing gets soggy or otherwise troublesome.
In my travels on the Internet, I came across the Origin Maine Defender mask (no longer available), a gaiter made of stretchy synthetic fabric into which one can insert additional filter media (I used a paper towel). I wore them for work: they were a bit uncomfortable and got soggy if I was exerting myself and sweating. But thin gaiters aren’t really very good at containing one’s emissions, so I can’t recommend that alternative.
Later in the spring, we got a few dozen bandanas in different colors. I gave some to my son, who wore them as bandanas. My wife and I wear them folded up, with elastic strapping to hold them in place. They’re colorful (my wife and I like to wear matching colors when we’re out together), comfortable, more effective than the Defender gaiter, and cheap.
New York rules (I’m reluctant to call them ‘laws’ because they’re rooted in executive orders from Uncle Andy, and not passed by the state legislature) require masks on public transit, in places of business (except while actually eating at a restaurant), and outdoors when social distancing can’t be maintained. I’ll wear a mask while walking on the street, but take if off to ride a bike.
I doubt the mask actually does anything. My wife and I tested negative a couple of months ago, and we haven’t felt any better or worse since then. Beyond that, of all the thousands of Covid tests performed in New York State over the past month, less than 1% came back positive. However, if indulging a little public paranoia will help us get back to normal, I’m all for it.
Meanwhile, the supply chains have gotten back to normal, and cheap Chinese blue masks are once again available. As an employer, I’m required to have masks available for my employees, so I have a couple of boxes in the office. But I’ve never worn one myself.