Masks have been in the news more in the past two months than maybe ever. In spite of the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation to wear a cloth face mask in public settings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, tensions over the subject have reached a breaking point in some places.
Just look at May 1. On that day police in Los Angeles arrested two men at a Van Nuys Target who fought with security guards after being asked to wear masks; in Michigan that same day, Family Dollar Tree security guard Calvin James Munerlyn was shot and killed after asking a customer’s young daughter to wear a mask; and in Decatur, Ill., a man allegedly attacked a gas station employee after being asked to wear a mask. Objections to masks have even become part of many protests to reopen the country: One protester’s sign with the words “My body my choice Trump 2020” and a drawing of a mask crossed out on it has been widely shared on social media in recent weeks.
As more businesses reopen with California relaxing its pandemic shutdown advisories, many are asking how to best navigate a world where we’re told to wear face coverings to protect our health, but where not everyone obeys the recommendations and requirements. For some in the Bay Area, safety concerns have led them to speak out to people who don’t cover their faces.
“It bothers me when people remove them once they get inside the store,” says Oakland resident Toni VandeKemp. “If they get too close, I do say something. Not wearing one, or half wearing one, seems disrespectful and entitled.”
Griffin Cloudwalker of Hayward says he has no problem asking people to cover their faces for safety. “It’s our lives they may infect,” Cloudwalker says. “I also make a point of telling them why we need to wear a mask.”
While citations are possible for the misdemeanor offense of violating a lawful mask-requirement emergency order, the San Francisco Police Department reports no one has been arrested for not wearing a mask. Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a police public information officer, says the face-covering violation is the same one that applies to people violating the shelter-in-place provisions or operating a nonessential business.
“SFPD has been and continues to take the approach of progressive enforcement with an emphasis on educating the public on the provisions of the emergency order,” Andraychak says. Mayor London Breed has advised San Franciscans to call 311 to report possible shelter-in-place or health order violations and to “not take matters into their own hands.”
Not everyone will make that call. They’ll want to say something. So how are we supposed to deal with bad mask behavior without becoming the next news story? As with so many other issues raised by the pandemic, there’s no simple answer.
Lizzie Post, the etiquette author and co-president of the Emily Post Institute, says that while there’s always a need for people to be considerate, “The health issue here makes this very different. We’re always supposed to be thinking about the comfort of others we’re with, but right now that is very heightened.”
Post, who is the great-great-granddaughter of manners maven Emily Post, says the coronavirus has changed how people interact with each other so significantly that she’s considering adding a chapter on how to behave during a public health crisis to the 20th edition of her ancestor’s famous “Etiquette” book next year celebrating its 100th anniversary.
When it comes to masks, Post says, she prefers to lead through example by following mask guidelines in her home state of Vermont. It is the duty of the citizen to stay informed about what the local mask rules are, she says, but you can’t ultimately control other people’s choices.
In San Francisco, Contra Costa, Alameda, San Mateo and Marin counties, wearing a mask is required in essential businesses, when taking transit and when getting health care but is not required when exercising outdoors. There are also signs throughout many public parks and at the entrances of businesses reminding people about maintaining 6 feet of social distance. Santa Clara County “strongly urges” people to wear face coverings, but has not made it a requirement.
“It’s easy to go to a place of desperation and fear when you see someone not wearing a mask or going against the recommendations,” Post says. “Our brains can want to punish or shame people who aren’t following the rules. That never gets people on your side. The thing you can do is control yourself and do everything you can to protect yourself.”
Bay Area author and etiquette consultant Lisa Grotts also prefers avoidance over confrontation if a person is not wearing a mask in a public place.
“Never engage; there could be rage,” Grotts says. If someone is flouting the rules, she recommends that people “appeal to the higher authority of employees and management.”
Shaming, Grotts says, is never good behavior. Emotions and concerns around personal safety can be high. If you need to ask a person to change their behavior during a social interaction, you should phrase it in a mutually beneficial way, she suggests.
“‘For both of our safety, could you stand a little further away?’ is appropriate,” Grotts says. “This is all new and changing so quickly, sometimes it’s an accident. I stepped over the tape line (for social distance) at the grocery store the other day, and the woman ahead of me very nicely asked me to back up. I didn’t even realize I was doing it.”
Post says that she’s also mindful that following the rules around masks and social distance in businesses isn’t only for the customers safety, it’s for the safety of the workers.
Charlotte Shultz, chief of protocol for California and San Francisco, says avoiding conflict is always the safest course of action, and that there are safe, polite ways you can remind people about mask regulations or request more distance.
“If you’re not belligerent, if you say it in a kind way, I wouldn’t mind,” Shultz says. “But it might just be easier not to walk toward them, or to walk away.”
Issues around face coverings and physical contact have impacted Shultz’s role planning major public events and in her interactions with San Francisco’s foreign consular community.
“The protocol is, we have to follow whatever the latest government guidelines are,” Shultz says. “The guidelines are the way we’re fighting this international, criminal intruder. Protocol, people acting the correct way, is needed in this fight.”
Masks will probably be a part of official events when they resume, Shultz says, as will social distancing and doing away with handshaking and kissing on the cheeks as greetings. Shultz notes that she even had a mask put on the statue of Tony Bennett outside the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill to make the point: “Maybe we should put them on all the public statues to remind people.”
Shultz and her husband, former Secretary of State George Shultz, recently agreed to be part of a campaign through Grace Cathedral to promote wearing masks for public safety.
“That’s what the scientists say we need to do,” Charlotte Shultz says. “Wearing masks is a duty; people who don’t do it are irresponsible, heartless, not respectful. It’s such a small sacrifice. People need to follow the guidelines in this very serious situation.”
While Shultz, Grotts and Post all agree that scolding and angry confrontations are neither good manners nor good safety, it’s possible that given the charged subject matter, people may still get upset when others don’t follow guidelines.
“Always try and be positive and generous with the way you say things but if you blow up in the moment, apologize,” Post says. “It’s OK to tell people you’re frustrated by this.”
Grotts advises people to come up with a game plan, before they leave their homes, on how to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations, like runners swiftly passing nearby without masks. Sometimes that involves changing where you walk or what times you go there, or just backing away from an interaction if a person isn’t respecting your wishes.
Post also reminds that no one should tell people not to be worried about the pandemic.
“Don’t tell someone they’re stupid for trying to protect themselves,” Post says. “Not a single one of us has enough science to be an expert on this. They’re learning new things every day. Try to be kind; it’s very unsettling trying to navigate the world during this crisis, which is the delicate, Emily Post way of putting it.”