Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | October 16, 2020

To mask or not to mask…

I live in Sedona, Arizona.  Early on in this Time of Covid, our mayor declared a city-wide emergency.  Non-essential businesses closed their doors. 

In the essential businesses, such a supermarkets, pharmacies, liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, wearing of masks was required, wearing of gloves was encouraged, aisles were made to be one way and those who managed not to see the red and white stickers on the aisle floors every six feet were approached by staff and educated.

The check-out lines where an actual person did the scanning and weighing for you were subject to the Designated Shopper-Control Official.  A separate D S-C Self-Checkout Official handled the self-check-out traffic; that task was harder because too many would be users were unable to figure out one part or another of the required steps, causing the D S C S-C Official to leave his or her Control Post to apply a magic card to the scanner which made any irregularly entered data vanish;  however, the magic card often necessitated re-scanning everything, thereby annoying quite a number of the socially distanced shoppers awaiting their chance at a machine.  

Those whose carts and baskets were ready for the scanner were directed to The Wait Line.  Behind the front of The Wait Line were red Social Distance Marks stuck to the floor every six feet, continuing on a slight curve past the gourmet cheese section, the aisles to the wine and liquor section, and stopping just about where the bread began.  That line, often a long one, was colloquially known as the waiting lineThe waiting line presented its own varying challenges depending on its length.  During the first weeks of city-wide emergency, people wanted to shop as little as possible so when they did, they filled their carts completely.  Every now and then, husbands who had habitually heretofore waited in their parked cars, no doubt wanting to be fresh when it came time to help the little woman empty the cart, ventured into the stores themselves so as to fill a second cart. 

Our first city-wide emergency during the first days of Covid made for strange times.  The store shelves were either entirely empty – think toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, peroxide, any cleaner that promised to do away with bacteria even though we all knew Covid itself was a virus and a novel one at that.  Or, never before seen brands were to be found but in limited supply.  Frozen vegetables all but disappeared, so canned vegetables became the substitute of choice.  Didn’t take long for canned vegetables with reheating instructions in languages other than English and Spanish to show up, also in limited supply.  This, I wondered, must be what it’s like to shop in Cuba.  Still, the carts filled with such items as two-per-customer, four-packs of generic TP, two per customer, very small bottles of something that claimed to be hand sanitizer, hundreds of jars of prune jelly, double packs of economy sized q-tips, many cans of chopped collard greens, lima beans, cauliflower, broccoli, and succotash;  certified, grade B Arizona tripe, Rocky Mountain oysters, smoked ham hocks, plant based ice-cream,  spaghetti sauce imported from the Ivory Coast, and fresh-pressed, extra virgin, Kazakh olive oil.  Better a full cart of whatever could be stuffed into it, provenance be damned, than returning with over-ripe bananas, frozen calamari, and nothing else.

Weeks went by, the hospitals in Flagstaff, Cottonwood, and Prescot, as ready as they could be for floods of ventilator needy Covid victims, relaxed.  Excellent care for the trickle of Covid positive persons was provided.  No trucks were needed to collect bodies left out on the side-walk for disposal.  The mayor reduced restrictions.  Businesses could open, masks and social distancing required, except for restaurants where masks were only required while entering or leaving.  One way traffic in large stores was no longer enforced, lines at checkout stations formed willy-nilly, with only a nod to a panacean distance, and mask wearing was no longer ubiquitous.

For those who still did wear masks, how they were worn became, I think, a fashion statement more than anything else, to wit:  some masks were worn with the nose exposed, with the nose and mouth exposed, but the chin completely covered.  Some preferred their faces to be entirely uncovered so as to provide ample protection to the Adam’s apple.  In the case of shopping couples or groups, only the designated payer who actually stood in front of the check-out person wore a mask (in his or her preferred style).  It occurred to me that many, many people didn’t quite understand the actual purpose of mask wearing.

Soon enough, though expressly forbidden in many towns, cities, counties, and states, large gatherings began to gather, both masked, semi-masked, and mostly not masked at all.  People gathered for any number of different events and activities:  political rallies, religious services, parties (mostly young people partaking, protests, days at the beach, riots, sporting events, looting, and social intimidation.  It was while watching one such gathering that I had an epiphany.

I watched (some of) my first of the year NFL game last Sunday, Cardinals vs Jets.  I joined it in progress so I saw only the action on the field, but I distinctly heard crowd noise! That was confusing. I had understood these games were to be played in empty stadia.  After a long pause for many, many commercials and political ads, the game returned. The shot was from above the stadium. It panned down to the field.  That is when I saw clearly that not only were the stadium seats empty, they were covered over.  Aha! I thought.  I’ve been bamboozled. The crowd noise is recorded.

I found that both odd and dishonest?  Do the players hear that noise, do you think?  Or is it added electronically so only the audience at home hears it? The fake crowd reminded me of nothing so much as half-hour sit-coms and their canned laughter. 

Back to the masks.  Once I got over my surprise at the canned crowd, I started to pay attention to the behavior on the sidelines and benches. There players, coaches, managers, trainers, down holders, VIPs, medical staff, the guys who bring the bottles of Gatorade out to the players on the field – they were wearing masks, well, maybe a little more than half were wearing masks. 

After one play, yellow flags were thrown, and the referee came over to the Jets’ sideline to explain the intricacies of the call to the coach.  The ref was wearing a mask, the coach was not, the assistant coach was.  When the ref arrived on the sideline, he lowered his mask into the Adam’s apple position.  Explanation delivered, he raised his mask and ran back to the field.  The coach remained mask less, the assistant masked, the players on the field mask less, but all officials masked.

Leave aside for the moment the exchanging of aerosol droplets and bodily fluid that is an unavoidable part of football. Don’t think about the proximity of the players to each other every minute they’re on the field: the huddle where they all lean over and inhale each other’s exhalations, the line of scrimmage – more exhaling and inhaling – the actual play where they push and shove and embrace each other. I would guess that by half-time, at least each one of 66 men are now in possession of the viral and bacteriological contents of 65 other men. But okay, someone somewhere made the decision, and the players agreed to go ahead and do all that, risks notwithstanding. The herd immunity thing will probably be achieved by football players first.  But what of the others?  Is it a rule that when you’re on the side-line you wear a mask?  Is there a transition distance when you come off the field during which you find and put your mask (back) on?  Is it part of the agreement that you do your own personal congratulatory greeting with your friends and colleagues sans mask?  I ask, because I observed all of that.

Just so we’re all on the same page, let me review with you the relevant information about masks and their purpose.  (1) Primary purpose, some measure of protection by the wearer of the mask for anyone with whom that wearer comes near.  Does the mask you are wearing protect you?  Yes, a bit, but that depends entirely on where you are, who you are with, how close you come to other people, and whether or not they themselves are wearing masks.  Your safety also depends on the quality of the mask: numbers of layers and how well it fits.  Gaps where the face and mask don’t meet are virus highways.  And the efficacy of any mask at all depends on how the mask is put on. The only safe way is to hold the straps and pull the mask up and over the mouth and nose.  From then on, touching the mask is a no-no because anything one has touched since putting the mask on (without, remember having touched the mask itself) is transferred to the mask.  Wherever one’s hands go, what has been touched goes with them.  To take a mask off safely, we need  to hold the straps, pull up and forward, and lift the mask away. Now, do not touch the mask!  Do not put the mask down on any surface!  In fact, do not let the mask touch anything! If the mask itself is touched or laid down on any surface at all, a new, pristine mask must be used in its place.  Discard the compromised mask!

Question.  Is the mask protocol above followed anywhere?  Answer.  Yes, in a hospital operating room.  Of course, careful mask handling is practiced outside operating rooms, by hospital workers and first responders and even civilians, but they can only be as safe and circumstances allow.  Only an operating room is a sanitized environment where sanitized doctors and nurses use only sanitized equipment and breathe only sanitized air.

Now, let me ask you, if Sedona’s mask behavior and the mask behavior of gatherings we can all see on a television screen is, in fact, the norm for the nation, do you think there would be a significant difference in the numbers – total cases, total deaths, total tests – if mask restrictions became instead mask advice and recommendations?   


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