I have what you might call a mask problem.
It began with the start of the coronavirus pandemic itself, back in late February. Even before the full fury of COVID-19 hit, some people were already strolling by my office, all masked up.
“Why are they doing that?” I wondered, thinking it was more performance than practical.
At the time, health experts were minimizing the role of masks in preventing the spread of the disease. Some even claimed it was counterproductive.
Since then, the thinking has evolved, with the importance of mask usage rising as we learned more about the virus and how it spreads.
Still, I resisted, and, maybe sometime in May, I began to wonder why. After all, I regard myself as fairly non-ideological. When people ask me if I have a philosophy or ideology, I usually respond, “pragmatist.” In my book, the more facts, the better.
But there I was, not heeding the mounting evidence right before me, trying instead to justify being anti-mask.
Yes, masks are uncomfortable, but in the end, I realized that my greatest issue was this—I found masks to be dehumanizing. Interacting with someone wearing a mask seems incomplete, like a huge piece of his or her face is missing. The person doesn’t appear quite the same, made up of some kind of human/cloth hybrid.
I’ll probably never get over this. When I speak to a person wearing a mask, I find that I want to cut the conversation short, because it just feels off. Until now, I didn’t realize how much I valued the expressive, non-verbal part of human interaction.
However, I’ve also come to realize that I’m just going to have to get over it. Evidently, masks are the price we have to pay if we want life to return to some sense of normalcy until a vaccine (we hope) eliminates the threat.
If faced with a choice between hunkering down again in isolation and a mask, I’ll take the mask.
If faced with a choice between skyrocketing infection rates and a mask, I’ll take the mask.
If faced with a choice between widespread business closures and a mask, I’ll take the mask.
As usual, in the end, pragmatism won out.
But, of course, I’m just one person. In this country, mask wearing has become a political statement, unfortunately. It seems that not wearing a mask has become as performative as wearing one might have been in the pandemic’s early days.
As I gaze ahead into our unknown future, I have several hopes as we eventually emerge from the wreckage of the coronavirus.
First of all, I hope that we’re able to limit the spread of the disease as much as possible.
As I write this column, we seem to be profoundly failing at this goal in much of the country. Lacking a national policy, we have 50 different state responses, which is less of a plan than a wildly out-of-control experiment.
Secondly, I hope for the least possible damage to the economy, especially to our local businesses. So far, in Harrisburg, our small businesses have shown remarkable resilience, particularly our large number of bars, restaurants and cafés. But how long can that last, especially if there’s a second wave?
Thirdly, I’m focused like a laser on ensuring that TheBurg remains viable until we bust out the other side of this. As you may know, the news industry was in dire straits before the pandemic hit, and I fear the virus may be the proverbial final nail for many papers. Already, we recently lost the venerable Press & Journal, a 166-year-old newspaper out of Middletown, underscoring the fragility of this vitally important industry.
These are the reasons that I finally came to embrace the mask. Well, honestly, I still hate it. I still find it profoundly dehumanizing. But I’ve reached the unfortunate conclusion that we’re going to have to mask up to muddle through.
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.
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Illustration by Rich Hauck.