Ah, how perceptions change. Not long ago, masks were considered theatrical devices, Halloween disguises and the work gear of doctors and dental techs. In February, as I saw the COVID-19 writing on the wall, I began making and wearing them. At that time, anyone wearing one in public was given weird looks and a wide berth. A few months went by and now, anyone not wearing one is either clueless or a social deviant.
The first attempt at protective medical masking was in the 1600s bubonic plague. “Doctors” who cared for the sick were clad in leather and wore goggles and long beaked masks, nostrils plugged with aromatic curatives to cover the stench of death and perhaps offer a degree of protection. In 1878 a Dr. Jessop wrote of protecting from disease by quarantining, disinfecting and wearing a mask. In 1910, Dr. Wu realized disease was not only carried by fleas, but by air contagion. During the 1918 flu epidemic, sororities, the Red Cross and churches sewed masks out of cotton and gauze which were distributed to the public to stop the spread.
The modern N95 mask was developed by a former décor editor at House Beautiful, Sarah Little Turnbull. Consulting with 3M, which was melting polymer with fiber to make a stiffer gift ribbon, she adapted it to make shoulder pads and a molded bra. After several members of her family died in hospitals, she worked with 3M to create a surgical mask from a bra cup. Because it couldn’t block pathogens, it, instead, became widely used in mining and construction to block dust. Finally, in 1995 it was perfected as a medical grade mask. Clearly, the mask concept is not a new one.
So, what’s the deal with not wearing them? Some, including POTUS, felt it made them feel weak. Well, in Africa, in many tribes, only men can wear masks. And who were those champions of justice, masked men racing across the screens of our black and white TVs in the 1950s? It could have been the Lone Ranger or Zorro. Then there is the beloved cavalcade of comic book characters heroes: Spidey, Wolverine, The Flash, Moon Knight, Batgirl and Batman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all masked guys and gals.
There are other mask benefits. They give us new excuses for not exercising. “I’m not working out with a mask.” And no one in the supermarket will recognize you piling obscene amounts of junk food into your shopping cart. Also, you can mumble expletives and make faces at obnoxious offenders who cut into your socially distanced line at Trader Joe's or refuse to don a mask on a crowded street. To be truthful, masks can be uncomfortable — ripping off your mask when you get back in the car is the new tearing off your bra when you finally get home, or, for you guys, unbuckling your belt after you’ve over indulged.
The best proven mask is a simple 100 percent two-layered quilting cotton, well-fitted one. It keeps pesky corona particles to within two and a half inches from the wearer. The hanging folded bandanas don’t cut it — they allow particles to escape up to three feet away. The gaiter, “buff” neck tubes, are better than nothing, but not as good as the simple cotton ones. Never wear the “selfish” face covering. That would be the valve mask. The valve is a one-way ticket to infecting everyone around you, as the one-way valve filters going in, but not out. They have been banned in some states. The valve was to protect the wearer from dust and smog, not the public from the potential COVID-19 carrier.
Follow the Golden Rule of Masks: One to wash and one to wear, one to give and one for spare. There is a mask for every passion, to accessorize your Lilly Pulitzer or Goth outfit, advance your political agenda, be funny — “I’m an introvert, a social distancing professional” or “if you’re reading this, you’re too close!” You can advertise your business or celebrate your favorite sports team which is/is not playing. Here’s a cute one: “You can’t spell quarantine without URAQT.”
Do us all (and yourself) a favor and just wear the darn thing. And when you’ve had your way with it, don’t let it become a statistic in the rapidly developing phenomenon of mask casualties, sadly discarded masks everyone’s afraid to pick up and throw away, littering our sidewalks and streets. Keep calm and masque on.