You Gotta Wear a Mask

I am exhausted.

Every single interaction with other human beings requires a complex series of negotiations and calculations that include the scientific facts, the interpersonal dynamics, the safety, and more.

Earlier this week, we had to go to Lowe’s to purchase an in-store only item for our kitchen. I step out of the car, triple checking that we both have our masks on properly, and walk up the parking lot lane toward the store. We had parked far away from other cars so I didn’t come across another customer until I was almost to the entrance.

He was a middle-aged white man pushing a cart laden down with supplies of some sort. Pushing is not quite accurate as he was actually on the slope of the lot and beginning the struggle with gravity to keep the cart in his control.

He had no mask. Maybe he took it off after leaving the store. I don’t know. I have to deal with what I see happening in front of me.

Typically, I would give him the polite nod or perhaps even offer to help with the cart, to be polite.  Instead, I quickly walked far away from him and turned to make sure Laura would do that same.

He could have been a perfectly lovely person and did nothing to warrant such a strong reaction from me.

Except, he had no mask. I’m walking into a retail store where I will have to make this quick calculations over and over based on super fast assessments of the indicators, mainly if they are wearing a mask.

We weave our way through the store, taking the long way around several aisles that were a bit crowded. We find the appropriate associate who is a jovial and kind man who tells us a few Dad jokes that are genuinely appreciated in these dark days. His mask is not covering his nose. So we keep backing away as he’s answering our questions. He pulls his mask over his nose. He knows.

Most customers are masked. We complete our task and head for the registers. Laura checks out and I leave the store.

I’m shaken because this is exhausting. Every single interaction requires me to ask “Will you wear a mask?” and navigate the complicated feelings by the responses. I don’t understand how this is a difficult standard at this point in the pandemic that is likely to last 2-3 years. And my frustration and anxiety spill into those relationships.

I am 49 and Laura is closer to 60. We are both at-risk for different reasons. She has to go to her office a few times each week and deal with coworkers who won’t mask up – that’s not a situation she can control or avoid. But it threatens both of us. We try to hard to offset that necessary risk by limiting our other exposures. We use curbside and drive-thru. We avoid spending time with people whom we know are engaging in high risk behavior, thanks to their social media posting. We almost never go into stores or restaurants and we never eat at restaurants. We recreate in isolated cemeteries.

I get that people feel safe in their familiar spaces and make a series of assumptions about who is safe (aka clean – ugh) and who is not. But if you’ve known me my whole life, you simply cannot know if I am an asymptomatic carrier. And I can’t know that about you. If we wear masks and keep socially distant, we cover that unknown and can interact safely. The risk of exposure has zero to do with the character of the other person and everything to do with science.

Earlier in the week, I had to meet with someone in their office to sign some legal documents. I asked ahead of time if their staff would be masked. He said “you have to wear a mask in the lobby, the elevator, and our waiting area.” I said we would be masked the entire time. He then immediately said “I will happily wear a mask during our meeting if it makes you comfortable.” And he did.

But when we left and stepped into the elevator on the 28th floor of this old building, two of his employees joined us. The fourth one said “Is this too many people?” and the other person said “We’re all masked so its fine unless someone wants to be weird about it.”

We moved further back into the elevator.

Her comments were clearly trying to bully us into submitting to getting the elevator to the ground as quickly as possible. We had boarded first. She was probably tired and had a family at home and a long commute, etc. She knew we were clients and probably has a general idea of how much $$ we had forked over to complete these business tasks.

We should have left the elevator, allowed them to descend, and waited for the next one. But I am so tired. I just wanted to go home. Unfortunately, we had other stops before that would happen. More assessing, more split second decisions, more exposures.

If we could just agree on basic universal standards, we’d remove the emotional element of personal decisions. Wear a mask when you leave your house and when you are spending time with other people who are not part of your household. Don’t take offense when someone asks you to mask up. If someone in your household won’t comply, they either don’t participate or you work with them to resolve their concerns.

Obviously, we can’t convince the anti-maskers to fall in line, but most of us believe in the science and want to keep each other safe. The problem is that we all create our own caveats and exceptions. We hug grandma or our BFF. We don’t want to argue with Uncle Jim about wearing a mask in their own home. We let the “don’t be weird” comment hit home because of our history of being bullied and don’t say anything.

And you have your own caveats and exceptions that may not line up with mine. So how do we navigate this gray area to have some semblance of safe interactions?

I don’t know. When I ask someone about masking and they hesitate or hedge or explain how its not necessary, I am so downcast. Talking should be a solution, but it often isn’t because we bump into those unspoken caveats and exceptions.

Masks and social distancing should not be negotiations like food or beverage or time frames. We should be able to assume people will be masked, not have to try to nudge them to that decision. Especially people we love and who love us.

It is hard enough to deal with the anti-maskers and the Trumpies. Arguing between ourselves about simply social interactions because we are desperate for human contact but also scared of contracting a terrible illness adds to the despondency.

Perhaps we’d be better off if we made one of two choices – either set aside our caveats and exceptions completely if someone from outside our household (not family, household) is involved OR be willing have a frank conversation, cards on the table, and hold no ill-will if someone doesn’t want to be around us because we won’t have our children wear masks around them.

I’m exhausted, yinz.

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