To mask or not to mask?
Studies show masking up benefits you as well as the people around you. Do you still do it? Or is it too inconvenient?
Wearing a mask to protect others from a potentially deadly virus should have never become a political issue. In 2020, who wore a mask and who did not was roughly divided down political party lines. Now, in 2022, wearing a mask is just part of life. Knowing when and where it’s polite to mask up is important in order to avoid certain social faux pas.
Covid-19 is now considered to be endemic, similar to influenza or the common cold. This means that it is unlikely to disappear from the general population. There will always be minor outbreaks and a need for updated vaccines. There will always be a minor risk that you or a loved one could be exposed to Covid-19. On September 20th, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported 47,037 new cases of Covid-19 infection, with a 7 day average of 55,332 new cases per day (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). Covid-19 has become normalized but is still highly contagious.
Like any other virus, large groups of people are hot spots for Covid-19. This includes classes, spiritual and religious services, and concerts. Wearing a mask when in a large group is one way to reduce the risk of you or someone you know getting sick.
Scientific consensus agrees that wearing a mask prevents the spread of viruses. If you speak or cough while wearing a mask, water droplets (that contain the virus) are trapped in the mask rather than floating around infecting the general public.
There are plenty of non-political reasons a person doesn’t mask: claustrophobia, health issues, a disability or sensory issues are all examples of logical justifications for not wearing a mask. When I see people in public not wearing masks, I assume they’re taking a personally calculated risk that is none of my business. There is no reason to confront strangers about their personal choices.
However, the majority of anti-masking rhetoric is linked to conservative ideology. A study published in 2021 in the peer-reviewed academic journal Frontiers in Psychology titled “Mask Wearing as Cultural Behavior: An Investigation Across 45 U.S. States During the COVID-19 Pandemic” found that the perceived symbolism, value, and utility of wearing a mask is strongly related to whether a person held an individualist or a collectivist mindset: “conservative respondents perceived mask wearing to be less useful, and in the interest of themselves and others than was the case for liberal respondents” (Kemmelmeier & Jani, 2021). People who perceived mask wearing as a symbol of submission and valued independence were less likely to wear a mask, and people who perceived mask wearing as a symbol of protecting one’s community and valued interdependence were more likely to wear a mask.
Conservative anti-mask rhetoric is strongly linked to ex-President Trump’s statements on Covid-19 being yet more ‘fake news’ designed to make him look bad. A publication in The British Medical Journal (BMJ), a leading peer-reviewed medical journal, pointed out that authoritarian populist leaders like Trump, Modi, and Bolsonaro all interfered in press releases as a means of downplaying the severity of Covid-19 (Gonsalvez & Yamey, 2020).
The Biden administration is also accused of mishandling the pandemic. Reports and press releases on the pandemic are frequently in conflict with official health organization suggestions. On the September 19th 60 Minutes broadcast, President Biden said “The pandemic is over,” and “if you notice, no one’s wearing masks.” (Sullivan & Stein, 2022). That same day, the Center for Disease Control reported an average of 364 American deaths per day due to Covid-19 (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). Data miscommunication and delays in government action are partially to blame for the current status of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Regardless of what went down in 2020, we are here now. As we move into the Fall 2022 quarter, we should be mindful of potential Covid-19 exposure and take whatever precautions we are comfortable with. It is no longer mandatory to wear masks indoors at UWT (although it is recommended). However, in my opinion, masking up indoors and in public spaces is now part of general etiquette. In a crowd of people, you don’t know who lives with their grandparents, who is undergoing chemotherapy, or who has a new infant at home. They also shouldn’t have to share this information with you in order to avoid unnecessary exposure to viruses.
Covid-19 aside, masks are excellent for maintaining general health. “College crud” is infamous for rapidly spreading during the first few weeks of every quarter, and wearing a mask could reduce your risk of getting the sniffles. Masks are also a useful preventative measure as we head into the fall flu season.
I’ll be honest – I like masks. My personal cost-benefit analysis has calculated that wearing a mask is a net gain. I like saving money on makeup and I like being able to hide my facial expressions when heated class discussions go completely off the rails. I also don’t like getting sick and I don’t want to unknowingly make others ill. If you see me on campus in classes or large groups, I will be most likely sporting a KN95.
So, do you mask up? When and where? Why or why not?
UW Tacoma’s Covid-19 policy page was last updated on 9/15/2022 as of this publication. Campus is open, classes are meeting in-person, and masks are recommended indoors but are not required. If you are experiencing any potential symptoms of Covid-19, you must stay home and get tested, even if you are fully vaccinated. In addition to this, the University of Washington requires all students, staff, and faculty to provide evidence of vaccination against Covid-19, except in cases of sincerely held religious beliefs or documented medical conditions with a letter from your healthcare provider.
The University of Washington has a FAQ page for any additional questions students may have about Covid-19. Check out https://www.washington.edu/coronavirus/student-faq/ for more information.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory [interactive graph]. Retrieved September 22, 2022 from https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_dailydeaths_select_00.
Gonsalves, G. & Yamey, G. (2020). Political interference in public health science during covid-19. BMJ, 2020, 371. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3878
Kemmelmeier, M. & Jami, W. (21 July 2021). Mask Wearing as Cultural Behavior: An Investigation Across 45 U.S. States During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 12 (648692). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.648692
Perra, N. (23 May 2021). Non-pharmaceutical interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic: A review. Physics Reports, 913, 1-52. doi: 10.1016/j.physrep.2021.02.001
Sullivan, B., & Stein, R. (2022, Sept 22). How Biden’s declaring the pandemic ‘over’ complicates efforts to fight COVID. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/09/20/1123883468/biden-pandemic-over-complicates-fight