The Covid-19 Mask Conundrum

Sometime back I signed up to receive The Washington Post’s “Coronavirus Updates” free newsletter. (If you’re interested in getting your own copy, you can sign up here.) The information offered in the newsletter isn’t generally anything new and/or earth-shattering, but at the end of each issue they share, and provide a response to, questions related to the virus  — and some of them can be very relatable.

Such a question was included in the latest issue, which I’m sharing here. I think many of my readers will identify with “Anne in Pennsylvania.”

“I live in an area with a large Republican majority. State law requires masks inside and outside. Today, I unfortunately was in a checkout line behind an unmasked 30-something female, very busy chatting up the cashier. I said nothing, because we were inside and the problem of aerosols would just have been aggravated. What is your advice for a courteous way to mention to people that their habits put my health at risk while still minimizing the risk of confrontation?” — Anne in Pennsylvania

This is becoming an unhappily frequent conundrum. On the one hand, we have scientific evidence that it’s especially dangerous to be near people who fail to wear masks. On the other hand, confronting such people risks increasing the chance of contagion, or even violence.

Nor do these bare-faced renegades appear to be going away. A small group of anti-maskers actually marched through a Target store in Florida this month, loudly inviting customers to join them.

Let’s first dispense with two obvious options for Anne: She could have simply left the store, though applying this advice globally would effectively surrender all public spaces to anti-maskers. Or she could have reported the offending customer to a store manager, though doing so would have simply forced an employee to take on the risk of confrontation and contagion. We’ve reported that retail workers already have it hard enough during the pandemic.

Luckily, experts do have advice for how to encourage a stranger to mask up without provoking them into even more dangerous behavior, which wellness reporter Allyson Chiu shared in an article today.

The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s possible the maskless person is a narcissist — someone who lacks empathy and believes themselves exempt from rules. That may sound like a snap judgment, but Chiu reports that peer-reviewed studies in the United States, Brazil and Poland all suggest that people prone to narcissism are less likely to follow social distancing guidelines or wear masks.

This does not mean everyone without a mask in the grocery store has a personality disorder, but it may be safest for you to assume they do, because another common trait of narcissists is being prone to anger. A simple eye roll directed at a maskless narcissist “will be enough to spin them into a rage,” a clinical psychologist at California State University at Los Angeles told Chiu.

So you should avoid even semi-confrontational comments such as “You’re supposed to wear a mask in here,” behavioral experts told Chiu. One suggested speaking to the person like a “hostage negotiator:” kindly, softly and appealing to their own self-interest as much as yours.

A Harvard Medical School psychologist suggests trying the line: “You can make the difference between life and death because we’re all in this together.” Using the word “we” emphasizes interconnection and might appeal to a narcissist’s sense of grandiosity. A small bribe might work, too: some experts recommend carrying an extra factory-sealed mask with you and offering it to the person you’re trying to convince.

At all costs, avoid letting the conversation become an argument. If it’s clear that the person isn’t listening to you or is stirring to anger, you should disengage. Simply stop responding to them, and walk away if you have to. You tried your best to make the situation safer for everyone around you. You can at least make it safer for yourself by leaving.

I tend to think most of us would prefer to avoid any confrontation on this issue, but if you decide to try the suggested approach, let us know how it went!

Image by digital designer from Pixabay

33 thoughts on “The Covid-19 Mask Conundrum

  1. Here, people aren’t allowed to enter a store without a mask, which is how it should be. Why bother to make it the law if it’s not going to be enforced? Those who choose not to wear a mask should stay home! I’m constantly amazed by the uncaring selfishness of people. Sigh.

    Liked by 3 people

    • From an NPR article:

      Business owners do have quite a lot of authority to require patrons and customers and employees as well to adopt face coverings as a protective measure. Where conflicts come in is in situations where the patron, for example, perceives the mask order to be coming from the business itself rather than from government.

      Of course there will always be those who don’t think the law applies to them.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Currently, you cannot enter a store in South Africa without a mask. Period.
    Security personnel are placed at the entrance and eveyone is obliged to use a foot operated sanitizer, or a guard will offer a hand spray/gel.

    As for the issues raised oin the post. All I can say is, if the store can’t be bothered to enforce security then boycott the store.

    Simple and Straightforward.

    And of course, the onus is on the individual to look after themself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, boycotting the store is a solution … but not always. For example, there are many small towns that only have ONE grocery store. Further, I doubt the large chains would even notice if they had one less customer.

      Enforcement is certainly an option, but I question how U.S. citizens would take to that. They already rebel against law enforcement in numerous other areas — even those, as this one would be, that are for their self-protection.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s not about boycotting the store for ”political” reasons, but health and safety reasons.

        The ‘mom and pop’ store situation is more difficult on the one hand – in an extreme republican stronghold – but may be easier on the other, in as much as you are more likely to be familiar with the customers and their situation.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a big fan of the aforementioned approach to anti-maskers (or those who simply “forgot”). It’s critical that we keep the psychological factors in mind when approaching this debate, because confrontation rarely, if ever, leads to any positive outcome, especially in a polarizing conversation like masks. The Atlantic had a similar piece maybe two months ago called “The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks.” It underscores similar points, how the appeal to anti-maskers should be handled very delicately. Might recommend checking that out!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it’s a very good article — and, IMO, pinpoints the core issue related to mask-wearing …

      When the president mocks mask wearers for appearing weak and sees face coverings as a political statement against him, it’s no surprise that some Americans are loudly declining to wear them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Right. There’s certainly a bravado that the anti-mask culture appeals to, and any inflammatory or condescending counterargument will likely only solidify the anti-mask stance. Our president’s efforts to diminish them certainly don’t help either…

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Nan, one of the keys to the mask wearing is it is protecting other people. When the incumbent president signed his executive order in Charlotte on his promise of health care, the doctors around him at the table had masks. The guy with the pen was not wearing one. Please re-read the first sentence and then the next two two.

    But, here is a person who admitted to Bob Woodward on tape that he knew of the dangers of COVID-19 and how it could spread in early February. Yet, he still had pep rallies with his most ardent supporters who would have voted for him anyway. In short, this person invited them to a party without telling them of the risk they were undertaking. And, even still, he is still doing it.

    As for the mask mockers, I have been sneered at, but never spoken to when wearing a mask. If I were, I would say, “you are welcome that I am wearing a mask” and walk on. Keith

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Last weekend my new Chinese lady (g/f?) and I went down to Lometa, TX very near Lampasas, TX—very small (country, redneck) towns in the center of Texas—for several nights. On a Saturday night we drove into Lampasas to dine at a very popular restaurant there called Putters & Gutters. Here’s their website:

    Yes Nan, a bowling alley and putt-putt golf is one of Lampasas’ best restaurants in town… out of perhaps three total. 🙄 Anyway, Gov. Gregg Abbott (R) still has a state-wide order and stringent restrictions in place on all bars & restaurants! Key guidelines and orders by Gov. Abbott are and while we were there…

    • All employees and customers must wear a face covering (over the nose and mouth) wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another individual not in the same household.

    • Groups maintain at least 6-feet of distance from other groups at all times, including while waiting to be seated in the restaurant. The 6-feet of distance between groups seated at different tables is not required if the restaurant provides engineering controls, such as a partition, between the tables.

    Nan, there were no “partitions between tables” anywhere in the restaurant. Not a single one. Everywhere was wide open.

    • Tables should generally be at least 6-feet apart from any part of another table. However, a restaurant may have tables at least 4-feet apart from any part of another table, provided the restaurant uses a partition between the tables that is at least 6-feet tall and 6 feet wide.

    • Screen employees and contractors before coming into the restaurant to work. [Nan, the guidelines here specify frequent, daily thermometer readings and observations of COVID-19 symptoms, repeatedly! Yes, time-consuming precautions for busy restaurants, and often expensive for the owner. I’m quite sure THIS owner was pretty lax on these customer protections!]

    Take steps to ensure 6-feet social distancing is maintained at the bar between individual patrons, between patrons and wait staff, and between patrons and bar items such as clean glassware and ice. Such separation may be obtained by ensuring bartenders remain at least 6-feet from customers at the bar, such as by taping off or otherwise blocking bartenders from being within 6 feet of a seated customer, or the use of engineering controls, such as dividers, to keep individuals and/or the bar separate from other individuals.

    • Consider having an employee or contractor manage and control access to the restaurant, including opening doors to prevent patrons from touching door handles.

    There are in place many more guidelines and restrictions by the Gov. and county judges (e.g. like Lampasas County) on restaurant-bars that I will not list here. But Nan, what was unbelievably aggravating and blatantly reckless, irresponsible by this Owner and his/her employees was that the entire hour and a half we were there… I saw only ONE wait-staff wearing a mask—all others walked around to all the occupied tables (of 3-6 minimum customers) socializing, working, as if there had been no pandemic ever nor over 16,000 deaths by coronavirus! 😠🤬

    Then, before I could finish HALF of my meal on my plate or my glass of cold tea, the staff seated a group of 9 customers (a family) at a big table for 12 next to us/me less than 4-feet away! Remember, no partitions anywhere! Nan, I was so infuriated—they let their 3 little girls walk around mask-less too—that I had to STOP eating or drinking and put my mask back on!!! Mom asked me if I was going to stop and if so, if I were getting a To-Go Box for the rest of my food. Angrily I told her yes.

    I couldn’t help but state to Mom, her boyfriend/partner, and my lady-friend that the family of nine next to us SHOULD THANK ME for stopping and putting my mask back on for THEIR BENEFIT!!!! Because if they knew that me and my lady were there from Dallas County—one of Texas’ most infected counties in the state along with Harris County (Houston)—they should not only thank me for doing it, but buy my/our entire meal for us too!!!!

    Nan, I cannot put into words right now how BALLISTIC I wanted to go off on the restaurant Owner and its staff!!! And to top it all off, when we left, in a matter of 15-mins after that incident, out front on the grass lawn and surrounding fence of the putt-putt golf course… was a massively huge sign that proudly boasted support for “Trump & Pence — 2020”. Then I noticed several more of those campaign signs everywhere on the property.

    Is it any wonder why Texas usually leads the nation in the highest CV-19 infections and deaths!? JEBUS H. CHRISTMAS we have some illiterate dim-wit rednecks here! 😡

    Liked by 2 people

      • That’s a very polite way of putting it Nan. Geeezzz. 🙄

        But you know, honestly in many ways I am not surprised by this state-wide attitude of I-Don’t-Give-a-Damn-Bout-No-Virus-Aerosols, making money and supporting our Authoritarian Narcissistic President is all I care about by our Texas business owners and one socioeconomic demographic in this Red state. “All you other people go ahead and die or spend 4-6 weeks in ICU at a hospital. I will live free (which equates to unethically, morally, and criminally) or DIE free a proud dead Texan!

        Nan, sometimes I really REALLY despise my native home state. Way too many Conservative rebel whites run this Lone Star state and THEY/WE ARE MINORITY HERE!!! 🤦🏽‍♂️

        Liked by 1 person

    • @ Prof.

      I simply can’t believe it. Some comments you write leave me shaking my head at how daft certain Texans are, and especially those who support Arsenal. Seriously, Mr. D I am gob-smacked.You aren’t sure if your new lady friend is Chinese or a girlfriend? Did you struggle identifying your old/previous Chinese lady friend?
      Were there no clues at all or did she forget her mask and have a paper bag on her head all evening?



      • 😆 Well my footballing Friend at the bottom of the Earth who bleeds Liverpool red, I’d have a clever comeback if my Dunners had played a lot better yesterday and matched your Boys’ quality. And WHY tha hell do we still have David Luiz? Pfffft. 🤦🏽‍♂️

        And I guess I possess a few of those dim-wit redneck genes of Texas—I am an 8th-generation Texan so I guess I COULD qualify as one of the ignorant with sketchy powers of perception, huh? 😉 😛

        Maybe I should really take serious what psychologists mean by “negative associations.” We become to some degree what we surround ourselves by, huh? 😬


  6. Well I’m from Florida and our esteemed trump ass licking governor just opened all the restaurants up with NO masks..even with waiters , no social distancing, nothing! So I’m waiting for the stores to slowly become the same. So far for the most part, I only do groceries and Lowe’s and a very occasional store like Michael’s and almost all do wear masks. I do not go to restaurants..
    If I did see someone mask less, I’d hang back in line or move quickly to another isle..and I always will wear mine…
    Wish they made masks to totally protect us from these jerks even if they coughed and sneezed…
    And yes, many of them or crazed by trump….in fact, I’d say all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The only masks I know of that protect both people are the N-95s — which are next to impossible to get. This is what my (high-risk) other-half wears. Fortunately, he had two on-hand when this virus thing started, but he has had to repair broken straps on both of them numerous times. If anyone knows where we might get more (genuine ones, not “fakes”), we’d be ever-so-grateful!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Nan, most all NON-American nations much better prepared for this pandemic have adequate supplies of the N-95’s. Have you tried China yet? You know, that Red Communist country that started this whole thing in the first place. I know in about March-April a Chinese billionaire sent the U.S. some 1-million masks and supplies(?) to help our leaderless nation. 😉


  7. Additional Note to Readers and Visitors:

    In the most recent “Coronavirus Updates,” there is a story about a husband and wife who took ALL precautions (mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand-washing, sanitizing) and yet both got infected. The wife died. The husband survived, but has some lung damage.

    This virus is NO respecter of persons. You simply CANNOT let your guard down! Even if you think you somehow inherited Superman’s genes, never forget that even he had to avoid Kryptonite.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’m lucky to live in a large, liberal city where there are many places to shop and almost everyone seems to respect the mask rules. Even so, I do my grocery shopping very early in the morning when fewer people will be at the store. And I never leave my apartment except when absolutely necessary — which basically means only for weekly grocery shopping. I think I’ve gone out only twice for any reason other than that since mid-March, both for things mandated by the government (renewing my car registration and renewing my driver’s license). I can’t control what idiots might do, or what the virus might do, but I can control what I myself do. All one can do is minimize one’s odds of infection. Under current conditions, letting my guard down any more than this would be madness.

    For Anne in Pennsylvania and others in her situation, all I could suggest would be going at whatever time there are likely to be the fewest people in the store. Again, all one can do is try to improve one’s odds. My moral position is that anybody coming within ten feet of me without a mask on is putting me at risk of a lethal infection and I have the right to shoot them in self-defense — but I rather suspect the cops wouldn’t see it that way. Unfortunately there are unavoidable drawbacks that come with living in a place populated mainly by jackasses. The pandemic has just raised the stakes.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Unfortunately there are unavoidable drawbacks that come with living in a place populated mainly by jackasses. The pandemic has just raised the stakes.

      You are obviously referring to Texas, Infidel. 😉 And when you say “raised the stakes“… we Texans come runnin’ with foaming mouths and growling stomachs! Steaks!? WHO SAID raised BBQ’d STEAKS!? 😛


      • Actually I meant places like where Anne in Pennsylvania lives, which can no doubt be found throughout the country. As for steak, no mask can protect you against what’s in that stuff.

        Isn’t Dallas better about masking? I know it’s Texas, but Dallas is a pretty big and blue place. Even your restaurant horror story above was from a small town. There are probably towns here in Oregon where the same thing would happen.

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, the reality Infidel is that Dallas County residents are NOT any better at masking, social distancing, etc, et al. “Blue place” applies only in small impoverished pockets of DFW. All the affluent suburbs, neighborhoods, and thriving businesses districts are staunch Red places. As I know you know, that Red Party is intelligent and cunning enough to know what KEY government offices to obtain and hold to manipulate public programs & funding for the minority oligarchs of that political party.


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