Masking Ignorance

I didn’t really know what to call this posts, but it is about the resistance to using masks in public to fight Covid-19. Whenever this comes up there is a tremendous amount of name calling on both sides of the question. So it’s important to remember how we got here.

The message from the professionals, the scientists for all of us who almost religiously follow science, back in late February and early March was “The only masks that will help prevent coronavirus are N95s, you can’t have them because hospitals need every one they can get their hands on, and if you could get them you are too stupid to use them properly”. Seriously that is what they were saying. What about surgical masks? “Nope, won’t help”. What about…. “Nope, the virus is teeny tiny and just goes through anything other than an N95 like a red hot knife through butter. Now go away and hide out in your basement, and send any spare N95 or surgical masks you have to us”. Ok I’m being snarky, but this is the message that was being sent out to the public.

A few weeks go by and suddenly the message changes to “Wear masks in public, but not N95 because we still need all of those for us”. “Cover your nose and mouth with a bandana, or sew one from pillow cases, or….” So a homemade mask or surgical mask will stop the coronavirus? “Not exactly” Huh? “<insert lots of mumbling about droplet sizes> So the virus travels on droplets? “Yes” And surgical masks and home made masks can stop droplets? “Yes” So the mask will protect us from the coronavirus? “No”.

I interrupt this frustrating exchange for a “commercial” message. The vast majority of the American Public are not scientists, but they are also not stupid. At this point a huge percentage of the population will see mask wearing as a “go fetch a rock” exercise, while some other large percentage of the population will blindly follow what the experts and leaders say, and some modest percentage will seek to further understand why it makes sense to wear a (non-N95) mask even if the conversation has so far made little sense. Now back to our regularly scheduled scientist/leader gibberish exchange.

So if these homemade masks won’t protect me from the coronavirus, why wear them? “You’ll protect other people”. Huh? “<lots more mumbling about droplet sizes> WTF?

Sorry, another “commercial” interruption. You’ve just told everyone who isn’t fascinated by the topic of droplet sizes that droplets can go one way through your improvised mask but not the other way, which makes no sense. Those who thought this was a rock fetch have now doubled down on that conviction. The blind followers of guidance now have altruism added to their reasons to wear a mask. And those outside the medical community that really have the patience to understand the whole droplet thing, which I’m convinced is on the same order of magnitude as my Twitter followers, actually get why this might help. I’d go back to the conversation, but I think that’s pointless.

The only hope for mask wearing is to make N95s available, because then you get a redo on all the other nonsense. Yes they will block the virus, and thus the value in wearing them is unquestionable. Well, except for all the other wishy washy and contradicting information out there. No, not from random sources (like me!) but from “the experts”. According to the CDC things like getting the disease by touching a surface and then your face comes under the heading “The virus does not spread easily in other ways”. And what about the eyes? The CDC says “possibly” when you touch your eyes with hands that have the virus on them, but is silent on what happens when droplets or aerosolized virus get in your eyes. Meanwhile some ophthalmologists think transmission through the eyes is being underrated. If that’s the case it means that an N95 mask won’t protect you sufficiently either. That’s just another trustbuster revelation coming down the pike. What we don’t know about coronavirus is undermining trust in every piece of guidance provided by scientists and government.

There is a lot of other stuff before you go all negative on those who don’t wear masks, because their experience is not your experience (remember over half the counties in the U.S. have had zero cases). Now when I run into these people (and I’m always in a mask when I do) I think they are being terribly inconsiderate; it wouldn’t hurt them to wear a mask even if it turns out that has little impact on the spread of Covid-19. But I actually understand their position, at least the general version of it. If you don’t generally trust government (and I don’t BTW), and then government and (in this case) the scientific guidance they are promoting is confused, contradictory, and non-sensical, you are going to reject it. And over the last few months that’s exactly what the guidance on masks has been, confused, contradictory, and at least seemingly non-sensical.

UPDATE: As of May 13th 2020 the World Health Organization continues to say “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19.”

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6 Responses to Masking Ignorance

  1. Bob - Former Decie says:

    I live in the 7th largest city in the U.S. and masks are required. Or they were until the idiotic governor decided to override all local restrictions with his own pretty much useless ones. Yesterday my wife wanted to get out a bit so we took one of our multi-hour drives that took us first to a smaller city where we made a stop, wearing our masks, to empty bladders and refill drinks. No one we while we were at the convenience store or anywhere else in the town, were wearing masks. There was a sign in the store offering 5 masks for $6.50. They obviously weren’t selling. No one was wearing masks in either of the two smaller towns we passed through on our drive. I can understand it. If your county has zero CV cases, it all seems a bit foreign.

    OT: I’m moving all my subscriptions to a different email address. I don’t see a subscribe button anywhere. Maybe if I use my other email address for this post and check the two boxes below, I’ll get subscribed, but how do I unsubscribe my old email address?

  2. Bill says:

    Well, masks prevent your sneezes and coughs from being propelled across the room. How about the 6 foot rule? People out walking the dog or standing in line dutifully 6 ft apart and a steady breeze blowing. Parks are effectively blocked off here in Marin County, CA while golf courses and driving ranges are open, deemed “essential recreation”. County officials are no doubt trying to do their best. But they should go take a hike!

    • halberenson says:

      The point isn’t that it doesn’t help, although all the simulations still show the droplet cloud expelled from the sides and then the data says it hangs around in the air for up to 3 hours, which means someone walking through the cloud is still at risk. Oh, and the 6′ rule is probably insufficient because it really should be 12′ based on the simulations, and that still ignores the whole walk through the cloud thing…. The point is that trust in any pronouncement about masks (or most other things Covid-19 related) has been lost.

      Parks are a funny thing because what they are really trying to do is enforce distancing. So they really want to discourage the activities of social gathering (e.g., a pickup basketball game in the park) not say hiking. Or golf, where at most 4 people are in any proximity to one another and nothing about the game requires them to violate a 6′ or 12′ or 50′ separation.

  3. Jill Mant says:

    Interesting and valid points, however, since the information we have access to changes with the wind, and wearing a mask can’t hurt me (I also wear gloves when showing houses or going to the store) and it may help, I will do it. It just doesn’t seem that my civil liberties are being jeopardized as much as my neighbors and friends health.

    • halberenson says:

      Which is great for the kind of person who is digging deep enough into this that she sends me a link to a simulation site ( for others who may be interested) on how the virus spreads in various scenarios. Out of a country of 350 million people how many are digging that deeply into the details, especially on a frequent basis? Let’s be generous and say 25ish%. That still leaves over 250 million people who either are taking advice for granted or rejecting it as government BS. But like you I sure don’t see wearing a mask as much of an imposition, and certainly not the kind of civil liberty imposition as Colorado’s “stay within 10 miles of your home” (imposed by a Governor who grew up in Boulder, as opposed to say Lincoln County) or the government picking and choosing which businesses are “essential” or…. The mask thing is somewhere between common courtesy and reasonable precaution. But ya lose enough people and 🤷‍♂️ I do have a small supply of KN95ss that I’ve started using in particularly risky situations to protect myself from those not wearing masks. As the KN95 supply grows (and the price becomes reasonable), and hopefully real N95s return to general availability, I will switch to those all the time. And hopefully so will many others.

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