I'm no longer focusing my energies on trying to persuade people to wear face masks. I can't beat my head against a wall for another year.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died. Through tears, their loved ones plead with the rest of us to protect each other. They hope their loss(es) will not be in vain if they can prevent other deaths. If that doesn’t move people to reconsider their ill-informed opinions on masks, I have no expectation that my experiences will have an impact.
I'm not going to give the anti-maskers more attention than is necessary. I am going to give them wide berth in public, on social media and in my personal life for the foreseeable future.
My energy is for the living, the hopeful, the people who wear masks. They are patriots, good neighbors and decent human beings. They embody what is best about our society — taking care of our neighbors, however imperfectly.
Thank you, neighbors, for your sacrifices, for the inconveniences and deprivation you endure with resignation perhaps, but without begrudging all of us a chance to emerge from this pandemic alive.
When I see your mask, I see the best of our society. I see millions of silent heroes who make it possible for medical staff to keep moving forward in the face of daunting odds. I see people whose choices to follow science keep essential workers employed and safe. I see your fear and anxiety, but also your faith in science and public policy. I see your willingness to do what it takes to move through this crisis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of U.S. adults reporting wearing face masks increased from 78% in April to 89% in June. Other reports suggest compliance is as high as 90% as of early October. As of December, 96% of those polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they wear masks most or all of the time outside the house.
That’s a lot of Americans doing the right thing. Or at least part of the right things, because compliance on social distancing, handwashing and avoiding crowds is much lower. So perhaps rather than beat our heads against the wall of anti-maskers’ ignorance, we put our energy into encouraging good neighbors to up their game.
I used to date someone who drove a classic Corvette and learned there was a specific half-wave these classic car owners gave one another when they passed on the road, a salute of acknowledgement and appreciation.
Perhaps we need to follow suit and take a few seconds to acknowledge, in a distant way, the masked people we pass every day. To say with our eyes and body language how much we appreciate their choice to comply with a public health protocol. A small wave, a thumbs up, a nod or some other such gesture would reinforce that we see them.
As co-founder of the Pittsburgh MasQue ProjecT, I have heard many stories from folks who want to mask up but face genuine barriers — everything from lack of transportation to a nearby store to a lack of funds. We hear from people living on the edges of a fraying economy who are literally one eviction away from losing their belongings, including face masks. Or someone who stores their masks in their glove box so they always have them on hand only to be involved in a car accident that made the glove box inaccessible. Parents of children with autism who struggle to find affordable supplies of sensory friendly masks. And our often invisible neighbors who live on small fixed incomes and cannot stretch their budgets to stop by Target for a few extra masks.
These folks are heroes for wanting to do the right thing for their families and ours. Their sacrifices often run deeper than the inconvenience of damp cotton plastered to our lips when we try to speak through a mask.
I understand that anti-maskers present a real threat to our ability to contain and control the COVID-19 virus, particularly if they also refuse to be vaccinated. But I think we might be better served if we focused on getting masks to people willing to wear them. The best acknowledgement of their contribution to public health is to ensure they have the tools they need.
That’s one reason the Pittsburgh MasQue ProjecT delivers masks regularly. We want folks to be well supplied so when a strap breaks or a mask is left behind, it doesn’t put them in a tight spot.
Our region has seen widespread distribution efforts that have worked almost literal miracles. Operation Face Mask Pittsburgh hit the ground stitching in very early April, ceasing only in October when they saw enough other sources to meet the demand. Global Links pivoted to distribution of PPE (personal protective equipment), including face masks in the spring as well. As of mid-December, they have distributed more than 800,000 masks to community partners throughout the region. Countless small groups of neighbors with skills have had a big impact banding together to make masks for their communities.
Our project focused on a specific portion of the population, the trans and queer community, because we understood the unique challenges our neighbors may face when trying to secure face masks. We have distributed 10,000 masks since April through direct monthly deliveries, partnerships with community organizations and providing masks to the region’s gay bars and other queer- and trans-focused events. I also maintain a vendor list on my website to give those who can purchase their own masks options of LGBTQIA+ owned and allied resources.
Our most recent monthly delivery of masks also included hand sanitizer, gloves, skin cleansing wipes and other items. We are preparing to distribute bars of soap next, soap donated by local small businesses. These are not huge quantities, just reminders of the array of public health tools we need to actively follow to protect our neighbors.
Mr. Rogers told us as children to look for the helpers during scary and dark times, implying that not only are there people to take care of our communities and keep us safe but also that, as adults, we become the helpers.
When we mask up, we take action to protect ourselves and our neighbors. When we ensure people have access to masks and other prevention tools, we are the helpers.
Supporting mask distribution projects through organizations like Global Links and our Pittsburgh MasQue ProjecT is a tangible way to actively and aggressively stop the spread of the virus while acknowledging the good people willing to wear masks.
Sue Kerr is founder of the blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and the Pittsburgh MasQue ProjecT. Kerr can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter at @pghlesbian24 and on Instagram at @pghlesbian.