You know the scene. You and a fellow shopper spot each other across the grocery store parking lot as you both head toward the building. One of you is wearing a mask. There’s an exchange of side-eye, judgmental glances between a person deemed too paranoid and a person deemed too cavalier.
Since health officials began recommending everyone wear face coverings in public to reduce the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a new social phenomenon has emerged. Whatever strangeness people felt upon donning masks has been replaced by a wariness of anyone who doesn’t. Someone infected with the virus can spread it even without showing symptoms, so in the pandemic era, everyone is suspect.
The tension seems to build with each new diagnosis. As of 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, Washington state had 15,905 cases of COVID-19, including 870 deaths, according to the state Department of Health.
Grocery store chains say they strongly encourage shoppers to cover their faces to keep one another safe. On Monday, Costco started requiring it. And Whole Foods this week began providing free, single-use masks at all its stores, though it stopped short of requiring customers to wear them.
Gretchen Hahn, a first-year graduate student in the University of Washington’s acting program, walked up to the University District Trader Joe’s line on Tuesday wearing gloves and a bandanna around her face. She said she wears both almost any time she leaves the house, whether she’s going on a walk or stepping into a grocery store.
It’s the least she can do, she said. “If you have the means to do it, you should do it.”
While the 26-year-old isn’t too concerned about her own health, Hahn said she does get annoyed when she sees other shoppers without face coverings. It’s disrespectful to health care workers, she said, for people not to do whatever they can to prevent spreading the virus.
“It’s also because I have a lot of friends who are [immunocompromised],” she said. “And they’re talking every day … about how some of us are so at-risk here. I feel really empathetic to it.”
Masks aren’t a perfect defense, said Dr. Jared Baeten, the vice dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, but they do help when coupled with other measures such as physical distancing and remote work.
“You layer all those imperfect things together and it gives you a really tightly woven net for protecting the safety of the public,” he said.
That message hasn’t resonated with everyone.
“I don’t see how it will help me at all,” said Micah Strunk, of Bremerton, who is skeptical of the cloth masks he sees people wearing.
Strunk was at WinCo in Bremerton on his lunch hour Wednesday with his friend and co-worker, Tanner Hall, of Mason County. Neither wore a mask. The men, both 20, said they have to wear masks at work but they remove them as soon as possible.
“They’ll protect you from spit, but the people I’m around aren’t in my face spitting,” Strunk said.
Cloth masks don’t provide the same protection as the N95 masks worn by health care workers treating sick people. But a cloth mask can absorb the saliva droplets you expel while coughing, sneezing and even talking, Baeten said, so it’s less to protect you and more to protect the people around you.
People with no symptoms or mild symptoms have played a major role in spreading the virus, Baeten said. As scientists learned more about asymptomatic spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance to encourage face coverings, even if that’s just a bandanna, scarf or something sewn at home.
But the guidance is just that. Without a legal mandate, it’s up to each business whether to require shoppers to cover their faces.
Trader Joe’s doesn’t, although it has taken other safety steps, including sanitizing carts, banning reusable bags and limiting the number of people inside a store at once.
On Tuesday in the University District, Alex Hahn, 30, waited in the Trader Joe’s line of spaced-apart shoppers wearing a colorful, homemade mask with cats on it. She said she always does.
“I don’t want to get sick, and I don’t want anybody else to get sick,” she said. “My dad, in particular, is almost 70 and not in great health.”
Rae Wong, a UW junior, said she initially avoided buying masks to leave enough for health care employees and other essential workers. As a result, she said, she never got into the habit of wearing one when leaving the house, though she said she knows she probably should. Her parents even bought her some.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Maybe I should wear a mask,’ but I’m not overly concerned about myself,” Wong said. “I don’t really come out often, except to grocery shop, and when I do, I barely come within 6 feet of people.”
At least a dozen customers lined up Tuesday outside Stag Barber & Styling in Snohomish — which has opened in defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order — and not one wore a mask, The Herald in Everett reported. Neither did the shop’s owner, Bob Martin, although he did tie a red bandanna around his neck to raise over his mouth “if it feels like I’m going to have a sneeze,” he told The Herald.
At the Bremerton WinCo, a 65-year-old Jefferson County man who gave his name only as Dwain said he survived “the Unabomber, anthrax, H1N1 and 31 winters” while working for the United States Postal Service and he’s not about to wear a mask now.
“If it’s my time, it’s my time,” he said.
Face masks aren’t required in Washington state. Leaders in places that have tried such a rule have faced strong opposition.
Officials in Stillwater, Oklahoma, rescinded a mandate requiring face coverings after a fierce public backlash that included a threat of gun violence.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine had to roll back the mask regulation in his plan to reopen businesses when Ohioans made it known they weren’t in favor.
“It became clear to me that that was just a bridge too far,” DeWine, a Republican, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”
But until there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, or an effective treatment for COVID-19, masks will have to be a reality of daily life, said Baeten.
“A mask should not be a marker of politics,” he said. “It should be a marker of taking care of your community.”
Material from The New York Times was included in this report.