Anti-Maskers Online

A free city-wide coronavirus testing event yesterday drew record numbers of people, despite the cold. My husband and I arrived early and still stood in line more than two hours waiting to be tested. Results expected in a few days.

I was involved in a discussion/virtual fistfight this week in NextDoor, the social media platform that seems to attract the most contentious people.

Someone had posted in our neighborhood group to remind people to wear masks when in public spaces. Most people here seem to be wearing masks, but not everyone, and the numbers seem a little worse lately, maybe because of pandemic fatigue.

I spoke up to thank her for her post and to add that a city ordinance actually requires masks outside as well as in indoor spaces. I posted a link to the ordinance on the city’s website.

All hell broke loose in response to both of our posts. To be fair, most people who responded echoed the call for masks and social distancing. But a few people did not. And, of course, the rabid anti-maskers were the loudest.

The city ordinance requires masks in outdoor spaces for people who are within 10 feet of another person and don’t have medical conditions that make mask use problematic. So let’s say you’re out walking your dog. If you can stay 10 feet away from any other person for the whole time, you technically do not need a mask. But this is a densely populated city. Most sidewalks and many streets are narrow. Unless you’re out very early or very late, in most neighborhoods it would be difficult to be certain that you can always maintain your distance from other people. There’s nothing wrong with wearing a mask around your neck or dangling from one ear when you’re truly alone (except for members of your own household). But if you see anyone approaching, you would be required to put the mask on properly before you’re within 10 feet of each other, or to step off the sidewalk or cross the street, or otherwise put some distance between your unmasked self and the other pedestrians.

The anti-mask responses broke down along predictable lines. Some of them wanted to dispute the exact interpretation of the city ordinance. One person was convinced that masks are not required if you’re near other people for only the short time it takes to pass them on the sidewalk. He gave no indication of where he got this idea; nothing in the ordinance puts a time limit on the exposure.

A couple of others disputed the usefulness of masks at all, going on endlessly about droplets and airborne transmission. Anticipation of such responses is why I’d been careful in the first place not to debate the science myself. I’m not a scientist. So I’d just pointed out the city ordinance and linked to the scientific websites. If they want to dispute the nation’s top epidemiologists, they’ve chosen an argument they can’t really win. And if they don’t like the way the city ordinance is written or think the science behind it is flawed, they can take that up with City Council. As long as the rule is in place, they are required to follow it. It would help a lot if the ordinance was enforced. It’s not. I’d like to see citations issued to those who go maskless in public spaces, but I’m guessing that’s never going to happen.

I was floored by the woman who felt that people who refuse to wear masks should have the right of way, and anyone who is afraid of getting close to them should just get off the sidewalk. So she not only believes she has the right to ignore the law and put people at risk; she also believes that law-abiding citizens are responsible for enabling her risky behavior and are on our own to protect ourselves from her.

Somebody made the usual, nonsensical argument about mask mandates infringing on our rights, but this is a progressive, left-wing city, and people like that are few and far between.

The conversation took a turn when one woman urged people to take precautions because this disease is serious. She posted a heartbreaking account of her own struggle with persistent and debilitating Covid-19 symptoms that continue for months since she had the virus.

And somebody replied, telling her it’s her own fault for wearing “a silly mask.” He or she claimed that masks cause Covid-19 symptoms by reducing the wearer’s oxygen supply, and that if this poor, sick woman would just stop wearing a mask, her symptoms would disappear.

Several of us swooped in. I posted links to information on mask use from the CDC and Johns Hopkins University Medical School. I also said that I hadn’t seen the oxygen-deprivation argument, but asked this person to post a link if there was a reputable scientific source to back it up. He or she claimed a medical source wasn’t necessary, because it was common sense, but after a day or so, responded with a link to an opinion piece — not a science piece — in a right-wing conspiracy rag.

This crazy person’s take on cotton face masks being more dangerous than a deadly virus horrified me. He or she was actively spreading harmful misinformation — and bullying a sick person. I reported two of the posts to NextDoor, which specifically prohibits misinformation about the virus. One of the two posts had disappeared as of yesterday. I haven’t checked today to see if the second one is gone too.

That’s the first time I’ve ever reported a NextDoor post for spreading harmful misinformation, but I was especially distressed by the fact that the person was blaming a Covid patient for her symptoms as well as giving people bad advice under the guise of science.

What is it about masks that turns some people into idiots? Do these same people refuse to buckle on a seatbelt in the car, arguing that those who use seatbelts are “living in fear” and that buckle-up laws deprive them of their freedom? Do they walk into a restaurant barefoot and shirtless, claiming that the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” rule is a stupid one that they shouldn’t have to follow?

We are up to 250,000 Americans dead because of this virus. This shouldn’t still be an issue, but a lot of people don’t even believe the virus is real. I read this week that nurses are reporting Covid-19 patients about to be intubated are trying to argue — though they can barely speak — that they couldn’t possibly have the virus because it doesn’t exist; it was invented by Democrats and the left-wing media in order to make Trump look bad so he’d lose the election.

Yes, we can reasonably argue about public policy responses on complex pandemic-related issues such as whether and to what extent K-12 schools should be open in person or where we should focus testing efforts. But it is not reasonable to argue against wearing masks. The science shows that the pandemic is real and that masks make an enormous difference to controlling the spread of the virus. Why wouldn’t someone want to protect themselves and others, in such a simple, easy way?

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