A man shot a cook at a Waffle House in Colorado, after the customer was told he must have a face mask to enter the restaurant. When his childish attempt to re-enter holding the mask in his hand was rebuffed – I literally have a face mask, what is your problem – he created an altercation that ended in a non-fatal shooting.
A church was burned down in Mississippi, after the pastor tried to sue the city because of its interference with its services. The pastor was still gathering people for worship, despite the stay-at-home order and the spread of the coronavirus. After the church burned, someone found graffiti that read: “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic].”
A man was arrested in Missouri after he licked a bunch of items at the Walmart while yelling: “Who’s scared of coronavirus?” A woman was arrested in California for licking groceries. A woman coughed on some produce in Pennsylvania as a “prank”. A cop “jokingly” coughed on residents in Baltimore.
So people are not really managing their anxiety about the coronavirus very well. The threat is real, people are dying, and even some early Covid-19 deniers have been brought around by witnessing sickness and death. But the messaging about what to do about it has been inconsistent and contradictory, with rules changing from city to city, state to state. To cut through the confusion, the simplest thing should be immediately required in every public setting: masks should be made mandatory.
The jerks and trolls will always be with us, but if everyone else is wearing a mask at least they’ll be easier to spot
I know that making a nationwide order to wear masks in public is not going to prevent all Waffle House shootings – no law yet created has been able to stop such an inevitability. But during times of uncertainty, we look to our leaders to tell us what we should do. And where are all of our agents of authority? Our president says to wear a mask, but he’s not wearing a mask. He says we should keep our distance, then he shakes everyone’s hand at the press conference. Mike Pence doesn’t wear a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic, but later says he regrets it. Cops are walking the streets all the time without masks. The people we usually look to for guidance are either being deliberately confusing or at best cavalier and reckless.
People are having to rethink every aspect of their lives right now. How do I make my six-year-old watch this video about math while also attending a Zoom call while also constantly refreshing Instacart to see if a delivery window has opened up for groceries? How do I navigate the unemployment benefits registration system when millions of others are all calling at the same time? How do I get from one place to another when even the thought of getting on a subway causes nervous collapse? We should help people out by establishing one certainty: when you go outside, you put on a mask.
Please do not talk to me about science right now. I’ve read the science. It is contradictory, and official announcements about the science are constantly changing. Plus, when you are outside on your one daily reminder that the sun still shines and flowers are in bloom and you are holding the hand of your child whose mask is always somehow sticky and slipping, and a jogger is coming at you and not getting off the sidewalk and sweating and puffing all over you as he passes without a shirt on, is that really the time to start Googling “coronavirus transmission risk from joggers”, read five or six different sources, and determine what the chances are that maybe you just got infected? Joggers: you are freaking people out. Wear a mask.
And I am tired of reading the science, I just want to take some things for granted, so I can use my brain for other things. Like wondering about whether or not my cat knows he is a cat. Or, how are his feet are so small. These are the important things of life.
People are clearly anxious about reopening. And one of the easiest ways to ease that anxiety is to require everyone to wear a mask. (And pay everyone a monthly stimulus, and create Medicare for All to help everyone who just lost benefits when they were furloughed or laid off, and organize workplaces to reduce hours and provide adequate protective gear and avoid physical contact with people or potentially infected surfaces.)
People love their “freedom” in this country, by which of course I mean the freedom to freak people out by wearing a gun in public, or trolling people with death threats just for the giggles, and they will want to argue about the order to wear a mask. “Debate me, bro,” they’ll all shout, as they trot out the one piece of “scientific” information they misread in passing on social media between a video of a parrot dancing to a Nicki Minaj song and a stranger’s tearful and heartfelt defense of some multimillionaire celebrity whose feelings were recently hurt by mean comments.
But no, actually, I don’t want to debate you about whether masks protect you or the people around you, in the same way as I don’t want to debate about whether the Earth is round or flat or whether vaccines cause autism. Can’t you just feel smug about being right deep down in your heart? You can even talk about it, if you want, as long as the sound of your voice is being muffled by layers of fabric featuring your favorite Disney character. The jerks and trolls will always be with us, but if everyone else is wearing a mask at least they’ll be easier to spot.
Mandatory orders need to be enforced, and that creates its own issues in contemporary American society. As the cops tackling mostly black men and women in the name of “enforcing social distancing” and throwing people into crowded cells without soap or hand sanitizer shows, we cannot rely on our traditional means of maintaining order to make people wear those masks. We cannot rely on a president who freely tells the nation to drink bleach to establish moral authority. So we have to do it ourselves, even when grumbling, even with a “Well, actually” stuck in our throats. You are freaking people out. Wear a mask.
Jessa Crispin is a Guardian US columnist. She is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast