The face-mask question: How people are thinking

In the 5 days since I announced our face-mask survey in the original Face-mask Question article, almost 200 people have responded. Three-quarters of them have provided thoughtful written responses. Many of these responses highlight the hidden complexity of facemask decisions. I’m writing today to share a few of them with you.

If you haven’t already completed the survey, please do—especially if you are a member of a minority or an at-risk population. We want to hear your views! (This survey is completely anonymous. We do not collect identifying information.)

It is clear from the responses below that most of the folks we’ve surveyed so far find that the “to wear or not to wear” decision is complicated by one or more of the issues below:

  1. contextual differences like whether or not one lives in a high-risk area,
  2. changing messages from experts and authorities as our knowledge of COVID-19 increases,
  3. contradictory political messaging,
  4. conspiracy theories, and
  5. the idea that complying with mask-wearing requirements is a threat to personal autonomy.

But they can explain it better than I can…

“I won’t wear one if I’m hiking or when I’m running, assuming I can keep a distance. I do keep one with me in a pocket. In particular, running is an issue with a lot of people so I run at sunrise when I can encounter as few (typically other runners) people as possible. Otherwise, I’ve had social gatherings with my core group of friends as recently as this weekend and I’ve felt ok not wearing a mask, assuming I bring my own chair, my own drink and we don’t get too close. If I’m on a sidewalk, I wear a mask, entering any establishment, I wear a mask, and when I recently dined outdoors I would don my mask every time the server stopped by. She seemed very uncomfortable about getting too close to us, and it made me feel bad honestly about welcoming the outdoor dining experience so readily.”

“Depends where I am, inside/outside/distance, if someone is in my immediate family or pod. However, I am conflicted as sometimes everyone doesn’t always agree on the risks and need to wear masks vary greatly among people I know and different states. The debate between outside versus inside is baffling to me. Many think it’s relatively safe and zero risk regardless of distance if you’re outside. I tend to be more careful and believe that aerosols can still be a factor outdoors.”

“I honestly do not know who to believe anymore. “Experts” are all over the place with it.”

“I wear the same grimy N95 from patient to patient because the health system doesn’t want to spend money for single-use gear… Wearing PPE between patients and for weeks on end would have resulted in being fired just a year ago. Now it’s the norm.”

“I try to abide by local laws concerning masks and requirements by individual businesses. I carry a mask with me at all times and I will follow the “rules” or laws, but I personally feel masks provide a false sense of security and cause a lot of people to think social distancing isn’t important if they’re wearing a mask. I also believe the masks are a method of the government seeing how easily we can be controlled.”

“It’s become the norm, I wear a mask out of respect for others and also when I can’t maintain a safe distance. I don’t care about all the conspiracy theories, I’m going to be wearing my mask and taking precautions until there is adequate scientific research on this. It’s crazy to think that scientists would have the ability to know concretely what to do after 6 months of aggressively researching something. Science takes time and data and the timeframe we’ve had is too short for real answers. In the meantime, I’m going to assume the worst and hope for the best.”

“I wear a mask where there are a lot of people, and certainly where our city has required one — such as parks, the two central business districts, the bike trail. I don’t even really wear a mask for myself. I’m recovered from COVID, so, for the most part, I feel like I can go and do whatever I want without much risk at least for the next few months anyway, but what I know is that OTHER people feel safer when they see me with one on. And isn’t that what the social compact is all about? Taking care of each other because we’re better off together than alone? I lose nothing putting the mask on, and gain a sense that people can see I care about them, regardless of where they are on the scared to skeptical spectrum.”

“When I’m outside (e.g., park) and can distance, I don’t feel it’s necessary to wear a mask. It’s essential for grocery shopping, however, which is the primary time I’m out and about. Our school-age grandkids and our daughter visited recently from out of state. Ultimately we did not wear masks because the kids hadn’t really been anywhere since March and their mom made no stops driving to our house. Since their return home, their 18 year-old neighbor across the street is now COVID-positive. They have not had contact with him, but it is alarming to everyone in the family. It’s a reminder of how close the virus can be.”

“If there is a possibility that wearing one protects me or others more than not wearing one, I’ll wear one.”

“I love my liberty and don’t want the US Government mandating it, but I have no respect for people that are not being maximally careful in this difficult time.”

“ While out walking I meet people with a range of different beliefs about what’s going on. One person thinks it’s health and safety gone mad and that there is a snowflake culture, another person thinks it’s a WHO experiment, another person thinks it’s China releasing the virus, another person thinks a lab in China released the virus, another person thinks it is a conspiracy to get 5G established in the world, another person thinks it’s just a big flu, another person thinks the virus hopped from a live chicken in the market in Wuhan to a human being. Everybody is just making it up; no one knows. At the start, the authorities told us kids are high spreaders and are symptomless now they tell us that is incorrect and we don’t have to worry about kids and grandparents anymore.

…I am lax, admittedly, in wearing a mask. I hear the argument for protecting high-risk people and agree with it but Ireland, as a country, can have low adherence to the rules, and even if I wear a mask others don’t and there is a mismatch of culture there. To some extent, I have to admit that I’m had by my culture... I think I’ve let the culture of lack of caring about the rules to influence me and I have decided now to be stronger. Regarding rights, I think I’ve got a right to a safe environment just as much as a right to personal liberty. I think in contexts like a pandemic the collective duty to protect one another trumps our individual right to liberty. All these considerations inform whether I wear a mask or not.”

“Since neither most businesses nor local police seem to be willing to take on enforcement of mask requirements, we are most often left to our own devices as a collective to determine our social contract, social pressure programs, taboos, and tribal fault lines. Given this state of affairs, it seems to me that supporting any kind of coherent ritual protocol that can be generally agreed upon is the most important factor when deciding to mask up or not when in the public sphere.”

“The more deeply we get into all of this, the more doubts I have about what is true and what isn’t, who to believe, what is propaganda and what isn’t — this makes choices more complex on the personal level... Making rational choices becomes more difficult as I doubt so-called factual sources more and more. I think I’m likely making choices based more and more on emotion/instinct — which only exacerbates the complexity involved in every situation. There’s also perceived risk connected to each personal decision.”

“[I considered] the science behind the effectiveness of masks in limiting aerosol, versus the science of how aerosol spreads when not wearing a mask. Likewise, I read the science behind what happens to the short and long-term health of people from all age groups who are infected with COVID-19. Then I determined based on all the information available that wearing a mask is the easiest and most effective way to protect people from the virus at this time. If new scientific information comes out, I may change my views or I may stick with them. But I have learned, based on the leadership of the country and state, that I have to trust the science and not let political ideologies determine what is best for me, my family, and my community.”

Summing up

I find it enormously comforting to learn how others think about important issues. It is much more difficult to judge people when you know something about what is going on in their minds.

The comments shared here are from Europe, Canada, Brazil, the United States, and Australia. We’d love to hear from other countries as well.

Every day we get closer to the 500+ surveys we’ll need to address most of the questions we would like to ask of the data. In the meantime, I’ll be in touch with updates from time to time. Please tell friends and family about this project. You can send them straight to the survey, or to the original post describing the project.

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Theo Dawson

Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.