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I learned this week that an acquaintance in Denver, a fellow writer with whom I enjoyed a four hour dinner and conversation a few years ago, has been hospitalized with COVID-19. The news took me by surprise. Throughout the pandemic she’s been a self-described naysayer, doubting the danger posed by the virus, questioning public health directives and the governor’s mandates. She and her husband contracted the virus, they think, when they went out to dinner at a restaurant. For the first week, she felt fine. The second week her oxygen levels dropped and doctors sent her home with oxygen. A few days later she announced that she’s in the hospital. I’m praying her story will end well. She has a husband and kids and grandkids who need her.
Meanwhile, the simple act of covering our faces with a piece of fabric to slow the spread of a virus has become the crux of a social/political divide. Shouldn’t we be taking a stand about more important things, like separation of church and state and taxation without representation? You’d think so, but it appears masks are going to become the political statement of our day.
Wearing a mask when no one else is wearing one is tough from a social standpoint, even when you have a good reason. In the last week or so I’ve chatted with people who are wearing a mask because they have unseen health conditions that put them in the high risk category for COVID-19 complications and people who are wearing a mask because they are in close contact with relatives who are high risk.
For myself, I’m wearing a mask in public settings (and avoiding higher risk activities as much as possible) for multiple reasons.
For one, I can’t get away from the comparisons to seatbelts. I came of age during the original seatbelt debates — before and after it became a law — and understand the “I do what I want” and “it’s my right” and “you can’t tell me what to do” and “it probably won’t help if I get in an accident anyway” arguments. That’s all fine and dandy and sounds tough and cool and all-American independent until it’s your kid who dies in a car accident he likely would have survived if he’d been wearing his stupid seatbelt. We have a lot of those sad stories in our little community. If wearing a mask limits my exposure — or even just limits the “viral load” I’m exposed to and reduces illness severity to any degree, as recent studies seem to indicate — it’s worth it, just like putting on a seatbelt is worth it, even if I never get in an accident.
And then there’s the financial component. Like many small business owners, we’re caught in the middle when it comes to health insurance — we don’t qualify for healthcare tax credits (we’ve paid more in taxes in the last two years than ever before, without a corresponding increase in income, but that’s another story) and the price of self-paid health insurance is more than our monthly mortgage payment. Statistically, if everyone in our social bubble contracts COVID, at least one of us is likely to require medical care or hospitalization, even if no one dies. One person in our family circle hospitalized with COVID would be financially devastating.
And last, I’m wearing a mask in solidarity with our grocery clerks, who’ve been wearing them for months, and other essential workers who are required to wear masks to keep their jobs. In a few weeks I’ll be wearing one in solidarity with our teachers and students. It just seems fair.
Maybe we just need to change our mindset. Maybe we need to stop thinking we “have to” wear a mask and start realizing we “get to” wear one. We’re healthy. We’re alive. We’re not alone in an ICU ward, like my writer friend in Denver.
By NIKI TURNER | firstname.lastname@example.org