“How come you’re still wearing a mask?” The question came out of nowhere from the man sitting at the other end of the shopping-mall bench. I was waiting for my wife to exit one of the shops, and I assumed he was waiting on someone, too.
“Why do you care?” I replied, touching my mask self-consciously.
He shrugged. “Don’t really care, I guess. None of my business, really, but I’m just curious. You’re ‘bout the only one in the whole mall who’s wearing one. They say Covid’s over, right?”
I followed his gaze, noticed a few maskers among the passers-by, but not many. “You really want to know?” I asked. “Or are you just trying to hector me?”
“My name’s not Hector,” he said with a tiny grin, and we both laughed. “Hey, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want an answer.”
“Okay,” I said, encouraged to engage. “You ever been hit by a train?”
“A train? Not that I recall, and I think I would. Why?” The grin lingered.
“Do you ever walk along rail-lines or across trestles?” I asked.
“Of course not. Train-time is anytime, right? That’s what the signs say.”
“Would your odds of being hit by a train be higher or lower if you did choose to walk the tracks, ignoring the signs?” I asked.
He looked around for a moment, puffing his cheeks. “Higher, I guess. What’s that got to do with wearing a mask?”
“I think my odds of catching Covid are higher if I don’t wear a mask,” I said. “I’ve never been hit by a train, either, and like you, I don’t tempt fate by walking along the tracks. Nor have I had Covid, so I’m just looking to lower the odds of catching it.”
“You can still catch it, even wearing a mask,” he said.
“You can,” I agreed. “Even though, as you mentioned a minute ago, they claim it’s over.”
He looked at me, didn’t reply.
“I’m not sure who they are, but despite what you might’ve heard, Covid is not over,” I continued. “According to what I read, it will never be over, just like smallpox, cholera, diphtheria or polio aren’t over. Those viruses will always be with us, and it’s up to us to protect ourselves. Vaccinations and masking are two of the best ways of doing that.”
“You vaxed?” the man asked.
“Four times,” I said. “And I’ll get another shot when my doctor recommends it.”
“Me and my wife are double-vaxed,” the man said. “They told us that’s all we needed.” He smiled as he said it.
“I know vaxes and masks don’t guarantee I won’t get it,” I said. “But I think they affect the odds in my favour.”
“Some people think the government’s got no right to make everybody wear masks,” the man said. “They say it’s a free country and they got free choice.”
After pondering that for a bit, I said, “I could agree with them, I suppose. You’ve made your choice, I’ve made mine, and both of us have the right to do that. But we will face the consequences of our choices. Still, nobody has the right to infringe on the rights of others, either.”
“You ever get on an empty elevator and smell cigarette smoke?” I asked.
“Not lately,” he replied. “Can’t smoke indoors now, remember?”
“But what if some jackass doesn’t follow that rule? What if they do smoke in an elevator, and then you get on after they’ve left? You enjoy the smell of second-hand smoke?”
“I gave up smoking years ago,” the man said.
“Okay, good! Now suppose that guy, instead of being a smoker, has Covid,” I continued. “He’s on the elevator you’re going to get on, maybe on his phone, so the droplets and aerosols from his talking and breathing are being released into the air.”
“So those aerosols hang around when he gets off,” I said. “Like second-hand cigarette smoke, except you can’t see or smell them. And science has told us the Covid virus is attached to those aerosols, which is how the disease spreads. You breathe them in, even if the sick guy has gone, and next thing you know…”
“If that’s how Covid spreads, why are they always telling us to wash our hands?” the man asked.
“Exactly!” I exclaimed. “Why do they tell us that? Hand-washing is good for overall hygiene, no question. But that’s not how Covid spreads.”
“How do you know?”
“I know because I choose who to listen to, who to read,” I said. “Epidemiologists and immunologists are more reliable, as a rule, than politicians or others with vested interests. I could follow all the advice from the best experts and still get Covid, I know that. But again, it’s all about rigging the odds in my favour.”
“So you don’t think Covid is over?”
“No one thinks it’s over,” I said. “Even they—the people who keep telling us we don’t need to mask up—even they don’t think it’s over. Instead, they tell us it’s time to get on with our lives, learn to live with it, make our own risk-assessments. The problem is, they no longer provide us with the information we need to assess our risks effectively. No testing and no reporting, even though they know the Covid variants are here to stay, in one mutation or another.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about variants,” he said. “What one are we on now?”
“Based on what I’ve read,” I said, “the dominant variants here now are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, which are highly transmissible and perhaps as severe as the original BA.2 variant. Rather than attacking the upper-respiratory tract, they go deeper into the lungs like that variant did, and they’re more likely to evade immunity.”
The man watched the people marching past us for a few moments.
“I agree we do have to learn to live with this disease,” I said, “because it’s not ever going away. And until we achieve some sort of immunity, if we ever do, wearing a mask is one excellent way I have to protect myself and others around me. Staying up to date with vaxes is another, and testing is a third. And when I do any of those things, it doesn’t impinge on your rights at all. But people who don’t do any of those things, if they become ill, can infect others around them—which is an infringement on the rights of those affected.”
“I can see that, I guess,” the man said.
“And contrary to what people might tell you,” I said, “you can get re-infected—more than once—and the effects of long-Covid are only now beginning to be realized. The consequences of ignoring simple precautions like masking can be awfully severe.”
“So how long are you going to keep wearing the mask?”
I shrugged. “How long are you going to refuse?”
He shrugged, too, the tiny grin returning. “Until the facts convince me it’s best to wear one, I guess.”
“Same here,” I said, rising to join my wife who I’d spied coming out of a store, bags in hand. “I’ll wear it until the facts tell me it’s not needed anymore.”
The man waved farewell. “Thanks for the TED talk,” he grinned cheerfully.
“My name’s not Ted,” I said, and we both laughed again.
As I walked away, I heard him start to cough.
Thanks for the story, I wanted to add to your reply to Joe. Please research how N95s work, it’s worth it. Large particles hit the mask. Super small particles travel in a zig zag and hit the mask. True N95 have an electrostatic charge that attracts 95% of the particles in between so very effective overall.
I agree it’s important for us to learn as much as we can about masks, and about all the pandemic mitigations. Then we have to make our own choices as to what we do—recognizing there are always consequences to those choices.
Thanks for the information, and for your comments.
Molecular biology indicates that the virus molecule is smaller than the screen of any mask. So the virus if present will get through. Other virus and bacterial molecules will linger inside the mask to be sucked into the lungs. Does that sound safe?
I’M vaxed 4 times despite having been tested having the antibodies before any vaccines were available. Its the vaccines that are the defense against the virus. So in total mask wearing seems counterproductive for me.
Furthermore, if as stated that the virus will be here forever; should it imprison our faces forever too? The common cold has been around for ages as has the flu mutated in countless variations. No mask suggestions were ever urged much less mandated over the years.
Underlying health issues are the causes of death where Covid is merely the tipping point.
I applaud the dialog as another example of your fine writing. Its always interesting on several levels what you post. I appreciate the chance to think about the issues of the day.
Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for the follow.
Mask-wearing, like so many other pandemic mitigations, is a choice/consequence, risk/reward equation, and we all have to assess the facts as we see them. I’ll stop believing in their efficacy when the OR docs and nurses stop wearing them routinely.
My question about human nature is in the form of s question:
We all wear seat belts in our car, we go further to click our children to safety. We do not
Question why? We do not rebel
and stand against this infringement on our life! Why?
We do not have politicians standing up saying it’s a hoax and unnecessary. Why?
Have we lost common sense?
I wear a mask to protect my health and that of others, I won’t drink bleach, take horse worm medicine, take lupus medicine or put an ultraviolet beam in my anus like anti maskers will. A mask is easier, cheaper and highly effective.
All those other so-called remedies seem so bizarre when compared to the simple act of masking.
Thanks for your comments.
Love this. Truth. I still wear a mask too.
Thanks for the kind words. Masking seems like such an easy mitigation, but some folks…..I dunno!
Quite a few people whom I know have gotten Covid, even though they’ve had three or four doses of vaccine. I heard on the news that updated vaccines will be available in a few months. I think I heard that they will be especially targeted against the Omicron variants. As for masks: You can only be helping yourself by wearing one.
I agree! Can’t figure out why the resistance to mask and vax.
Thanks for the comments.
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Interesting talk Brad. We are seeing a split in mask wearing up here. We still take the precaution, when we feel it necessary.
I think you’re wise…..wish more folks would do so. My choral group is back to singing unmasked, which makes me uneasy. But they think my wearing a mask helps my singing, so go figure.
Thanks for commenting.
Brad, I thought your story might end by you admitting that this conversation was fictional, the way you would talk to someone who was not masked if you were given the opportunity. Why did I think this? Such a long, detailed conversation between two people with different views about Covid is unlikely, in my experience. Congratulations to you for your thoughtful explanations, and congratulations to your partner-in-conversation for listening.
Well, your intuition is correct. But as a writer of fiction, I used the trope to get across a message I think is important. There was no Hector to hector, and no Ted giving a TED talk.
Thanks for commenting.