State and local health officials in North Carolina continue to recommend the use of face coverings in public spaces to contain COVID-19. While recent surveys indicate that the vast majority of public opinion supports the use of face masks and other social distancing measures, the acceptance is not universal. Just like any cultural shift, it comes with skeptics, cheerleaders, and people in between all vying to be heard.
The use of masks to prevent the spread of disease is nothing new, and it's become increasingly common in places like Taiwan, which learned hard lessons from the public health response there to the SARS outbreak of 2003.
Retired Greensboro substance abuse counselor Janet Hunnicutt is well aware of the trend. For the past 25 years, her brother has called Taiwan home, where she says everyone wears a mask.
“I have a seven-year-old niece and she wears a mask to school all day long except for lunchtime when they take the mask off for lunch. She puts this little headgear thing on that has a plastic shield — and she eats under the shield,” she says.
Hunnicutt wears a mask wherever she goes and says she can't afford to bring the virus home. Her husband has a compromised immune system from cancer treatments. Hunnicutt has seen elderly neighbors battle for their lives with COVID-19, and a close friend's mother go from asymptomatic to dead in a matter of days. She says she wishes mask-wearing was just as ubiquitous for everyone as covering your mouth with an elbow when you cough or sneeze.
“We are a ‘we' country,” she says. “We are in community with one another. And it's not even so much as I have to do this because of my household. I have to do this because it's the right thing to do. Because I think in terms of ‘we' instead of ‘I.'”
But mask-wearing can be awkward. The face is a big part of how humans communicate. We read emotions through facial expressions. Masking them can make us feel disconnected and suspicious. So, do they really make us any safer? Infectious disease expert Dr. Christopher Ohl says, “yes.”
“Masks protect people from getting infections that are transmitted through respiratory droplets, and we use those as healthcare providers,” says Ohl. “In fact, that's how a surgeon is identified on TV. It's the guy wearing the mask or the gal wearing the mask. And then masks can be used as what we call source control — keeping people's respiratory droplets to themselves, as opposed to out in the environment.”
How effective are they? A recent surgical mask study published in Nature Medicine showed that for people without face masks, 30 percent of the respiratory droplet samples collected were found with coronavirus. And for those wearing them, no virus was found.
Winston-Salem's Nick Jones doesn't doubt the science, but he isn't convinced there's a need for masks here. He says this isn't Mecklenburg, Wake, or Durham county with comparatively high numbers of COVID-19 cases. As a small business owner, Jones argues that masks, and what he calls media hype surrounding COVID-19, have not been helpful here in Forsyth County.
“Don't give me a mask,” says Jones. “You're reinforcing the fact that we've got a big problem here, right? By giving me a mask you're encouraging people to stay in their house, and to really over concern yourself with fear. Use masks strategically. If you want my server to wear a mask, great. But your goal has to be to get people into the restaurant to see the server wearing the mask.”
Winston-Salem fashion designer Angel Fant would love to see more masks where she lives. And for her, it's personal. Two of her three children suffer from asthma putting them at heightened risk.
She says, “Like when I walk outside and my neighbors, they're not wearing masks. They're not doing anything and they're looking at me like I'm crazy. But I have to work where I protect my family. And that's for all people. You have to protect yourself. If one person doesn't protect their self then the rest of us are going to pay for it.”
As the masking cultural shift takes place in real time, it's been a particularly complicated transition for the African American community. Black men have been reporting incidents of racial profiling while wearing a protective covering. So, Fant put her seamstress skills to work filling in the gap by making masks more inclusive.
“We decided to do something of a more natural tone,” says Fant. “So, we have browns, tans, and then a lighter color. We have three shades available — different complexions. If something's more natural like with their face then it's not like, ‘Oh, I'm wearing a mask.' Especially from a distance, it looks like you don't have a mask on.”
Fant wants to make people feel more comfortable because, at the end of the day, she says, wearing a mask is just the right thing to do.