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Sue Lani Madsen: Let’s not let personal decisions about mask-wearing become divisive

Sue Lani Madsen  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Sue Lani Madsen The Spokesman-Review

To mask or not to mask, that is the question.

Some medical studies support the strategy, others conclude it won’t help much. Lawyers will undoubtedly argue the constitutionality of a statewide order for residents to wear face coverings in public and businesses to require masks.

What is certain is a viral increase in community dissension.

The intention of Gov. Inslee’s “mask up” order is slowing community spread of the SARS CoV-2 coronavirus. As of Friday, anyone in Washington over the age of 5 will be required to wear a mask in public or risk a misdemeanor citation. There are exceptions for those with health issues and for the deaf and hard of hearing while communicating.

There’s little risk of getting a citation. Enforcing mask etiquette isn’t a high priority for law enforcement agencies already under pressure to deal with systemic issues and common crime. As Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich put it in a Facebook post on Tuesday, “I think we have more important things to work on. Perhaps (Inslee) should focus on the armed takeover of 9 Seattle city blocks.”

Unenforceable and unenforced rules are worse than no rules at all. When those rules are not made by the Legislature but by executive order, the most American of reactions is rebellion. No proclamations without representation.

Despite rhetoric out of the governor suggesting that those who won’t wear masks are selfish, no one hopes for people to get sick and die. But hoping everyone will happily cooperate while impugning the motives of those who need convincing is tone-deaf.

Appealing to “the science” as if it’s an infallible oracle doesn’t help convince anyone. Pick your position on mask-wearing and there’s a scientific study to back it up.

A randomized trial of health care workers published by the National Institute of Health in 2015 compared cloth masks to disposable surgical masks and found “penetration of cloth masks by particles was almost 97% and medical masks 44%.”

A 2018 NIOSH Science Blog on the CDC website reports finding “on average only 1% of the times that a surgical mask was put on … resulted in adequate levels of protection. This is not surprising as loose-fitting facemasks and improvised devices are not designed to seal tightly to the face and thus cannot prevent particles in the air from bypassing the filter and being drawn into the respiratory tract during normal breathing.”

An April 2020 meta study – a study of existing studies and also published by the NIH – reported on “a rapid systematic review of the efficacy of face masks and respirators.” It concluded at least some benefit from public wearing of cloth facemasks.

So cloth masks are better than nothing or masks give a false sense of safety or masks reduce viral spread. All have an element of truth. Is the mask fitted properly or does it have large gaps at the sides? Putting on and taking off a mask properly to prevent contamination is not intuitive, so do users know what they’re doing? Is the mask being washed after each use? Can you remember not to absentmindedly reach up and tug when your nose itches?

While wearing a cloth mask may be useful to some degree in slowing virus spread, wearing an N95 respirator with exhalation valves will not. It doesn’t filter the exhaled air. Anyone wearing that mask in public is not protecting you, they’re protecting themselves. They might need that protection, if they are immune-compromised.

Don’t assume they’re just being selfish. The only vaccine against ugly scenes of public shaming and bullying over mask-wearing or not wearing is to assume the best.

For those who don’t want to wear a mask for whatever reason, be accepting of those who do. Wearing a mask is not a sign of weakness. Assume good reason on their part and let it go.

Remember, there are health conditions that make it unhealthy to wear a mask as well as health conditions making it essential to wear a mask. Assume good reason on the part of a mask-wearer or those not wearing masks without demanding proof of diagnosis. Let it go.

And yes, there are people who refuse to wear a mask for personal reasons other than health, but the damage done to society by “mask-shaming” will be worse and longer-lasting than the potential impact of anyone without symptoms being maskless. Let it go.

This is a good time to practice being full of grace.