The Mask Dilemma: What to Say to People Who Aren’t Wearing Masks

No matter your approach, communicating with kindness and respect is crucial.

EugeneEdge/ Shutterstock
EugeneEdge/ Shutterstock

Driving to our favorite hiking trail this morning after two months of quarantine, we received a call from a dear friend who relayed the sad news that her beloved 65-year-old aunt had just died from COVID-19. “What’s killing me,” she told us tearfully, “is that I couldn’t be there to comfort her—my aunt died all alone in a hospital.” 

Stepping out of the car wearing a mask and a heavy heart, I found myself unnerved by the sight of fellow hikers who weren’t wearing any kind of face coverings, as required. Or socially distancing from me and my beloved, Lisette. 

Grumbling under my breath, realizing that the part of me I call “My New York” was ready to utter something out loud, the part of me Lisette encourages to “calm down and take a deep breath,” “My California, deliberated whether it was time to take the gloves off and shame the people not wearing masks, chill and say nothing, or reach out to them politely.  

Blurting out something like, “Don’t you dare come to this trail again unless you’re wearing a mask—none of us needs to get sick or die because of you!” might lead to a shouting match like those that are cropping up across our country between self-appointed vigilante’s and their unmasked counterparts. The decision to be confrontational and voice my outrage could make a powerful statement — and sometimes this is necessary. But then again, it could lead to a full-blown, mask-shaming incident. 

Having spent a majority of my years as a fiercely competitive athlete, I understand the laws of face-to-face confrontation. I also understand the importance of good sportsmanship. During and after a soccer or hockey game, competitors stand in line, shaking hands with the guys they just played our hearts out against. Reminding myself how trash-talking can make things worse and leave everybody staunchly self-righteous and hateful, I reconsidered the unleashing of my New York. Cornering, shaming, bullying and/or beating up on somebody almost always leaves little if any room for constructive disagreement, compromise and working things out.

Next on my list of options was approaching the matter diplomatically. I could say something like, “Please excuse me, sir, but several of my friends have lost loved ones to COVID-19, and I’m having a reaction to you not wearing a mask. Would you please consider wearing one?” Surely, however, these people must have heard sad stories like this, or at least saw them on the news. So how effective, I wondered, could a diplomatic approach be? Then I thought about what Lisette did towards the tail end of our hike when approached by the bare-faced wife of one of her real estate associates. When this woman came right up to her to say hello, Lisette pulled back and told her, “It would be a good idea for you to wear a mask when you’re around people.” Not surprisingly, the woman nodded and walked away. 

Being the thoughtful, kindhearted person that she is, Lisette texted the woman right after our hike, explaining her situation in greater detail and apologizing for being so abrupt. “My father has pancreatic cancer and is fighting for his life,” Lisette told her. “As his caregiver, I can’t afford to stand anywhere close to someone who’s not wearing a mask.” The woman texted her right back with an apology of her own, saying she would have done the same if it had been her father and telling Lisette, “I’m going to wear a mask from now on.” Watching Lisette handle this situation so diplomatically, the potential benefits and effectiveness of taking a direct but humble, “say something” approach became crystal clear. 

A third approach to consider would be to say and do nothing, I could deal with unmasked people who appear in my wake by just turning away and deciding to mind my own business. By telling myself, “Leave it alone! It’s of no use! You’re not going to reach these people or change their behavior no matter what you say or do,” I could enjoy my hike in nature, think about the things I’m grateful for, and go about my day, stress-free. While this “chill approach” might provide temporary refuge in a conflict-avoidant comfort zone, it would do absolutely nothing to solve the mask problem. Hiding, denying, repressing and trying to bury my fear and anger would also leave me with no constructive outlet for my feelings. 

Fourth, is the say something to the authorities approach. By reporting people who are breaking the law or failing to subscribe to COVID-19 laws and policies, whether at the hiking trail, Costco, place of worship or place of work, would place matters in the hands of the police officers, security guards, HR Departments and Executives who have the legal authority to enforce them. As one who is neither qualified nor interested in making citizen’s arrests, I could be a “see something/say something” informant.

Finally, I could effectuate change and protect my family by writing about my dilemma (which I’m doing now), wearing a cool T-shirts with a slogan like, “I’m wearing this mask to protect you/your family,” asking a family member to wear a “Six Feet, Please” hat or face covering in public to spread the safety first message. Advocating safety, health, risk and harm-reduction practices in the subtle and effective tradition of a “Life is Good” brand could provide me with another constructive outlet.

As I consider the pros and cons of each of these approaches, I’m not 100 percent sure what I’ll do as I begin to venture out into the world. At my tipping point for putting up with “COVID-19 deniers,” conspiracy theorists, people who are oblivious about the dangers of sneezing in line at Starbucks or CVS or wish to debate the efficacy of a virus that has now taken almost 100,000 American lives, I’m tempted to use “My New York.” And I’m not sure how I’ll handle mask wearing if reopening our communities leads to a second wave in June. But truth be told, I have not given up on the direct but toned down and respectful approach.

Having been a community leader who prides himself on being a voice of reason, mediator, peacemaker and bridge builder, I’ve almost always chosen the path of the diplomat. Starting each sentence with words like “Please” and “With all due respect” when I disagree with someone, I’ve spent a good deal of my professional life searching for common ground, decency and shared values. When I can’t find them, I’ve tried to be an optimist, believing that we can almost always find a way to come together, or agree to disagree. 

But when it comes to the safety and future of my grandsons and father-in-law, I cannot tolerate another minute of gratuitous explanations, justifications, rhetoric or BS. We are facing a moment of truth on the hiking trails, beaches, churches, shopping malls and beauty salons in our communities as they reopen. We’re either wearing a mask and protecting one another’s families. . . or we’re not. Addressing the threats that evidence-based scientists tell us will compromise our health and well-being . . . or not. Being COVID-19/science deniers/minimizers/avoiders. . . or not.

The diplomat, advocate and optimist in me are holding out hope that my fellow Americans put safety above denial, fear, arrogance, politics, or anything else standing in the way of following basic health guidelines. And that those who are not wearing masks get past the status insecurity that causes them to fear they might not look important or special enough wearing one–or standing 6 feet apart. As we study this virus and do everything in our power to conquer it, I’m counting on the large majority of my fellow Americans to do the right thing. It’s really very simple.    

If we meet on the trail and you’re wearing a mask, I’m going to thank you for being a thoughtful person. Thankfully, this is happening all across our country. And if you’re not, I might look into your eyes, say something about how that makes me feel, and ask, “Why, in God’s name, are you not wearing a mask?” 

The diplomat in me welcomes your thoughts, ideas, stories, criticisms, and suggestions about how to effectively deal with “The Mask Dilemma” at [email protected].

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