The transatlantic mask divide

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

Should we wear our masks? The question has been on my mind as I have been battered that way and this by a variety of people with stronger feelings than mine on the matter. The week before last, while I was walking down Oxford Street, police outriders began to emerge. Like most of the public I stopped with interest and some excitement, wondering who the traffic might be halting for. Sadly it turned out to be neither the Queen nor Matt Hancock. Instead the traffic was being stopped for several thousand anti-lockdown protestors. Those of us who had hoped to catch a glimpse of, or even a wave from, the Health Secretary found ourselves instead being shouted at.

‘Take off your masks’ the marchers declaimed from the road’s centre at those of us on the pavement. Some accompanied their chant with a great upwards wave of the arms, further imploring us to cast off our facial servitude. Since we were outside I was in any case, like most Londoners, not wearing a mask. Still we had the thrill of chastisement. Each generation of our forebears could have witnessed a sight similar in our capital: a band of the elect imploring the wider public to save themselves and achieve a type of salvation.

I mention my habit of not wearing a mask outdoors with some trepidation. Doubtless it will draw complaints. But while trying not to be ostentatious in my habits, my main reason is that it makes no sense. For it to be fully effective, mask-wearing relies not just on everybody wearing their masks all the time, but for all of us to avoid touching our faces throughout the day as well. I just stroked my brow at that thought. The chances that we might rely on everybody in society avoiding making such a move until a vaccine arrives seem slim to me.

But I don’t like making a fuss. So when I go into a shop I put a mask on. And it is a small price to pay to keep what economy we still have staggering on. On occasions when I have forgotten my mask I wear dark glasses or a hat and move swiftly. If I have forgotten to bring anything, I find I employ that demeanour for arriving late at the theatre and frown deeply, even scowl. For this too doubtless wards off the virus.

None of which prepared me for life in America. For since arriving in the USA last week I have found very little of the type of zealotry encountered in Oxford Street. Indeed so far it is only the opposite type. In New York everybody wears masks outdoors as well as in. If you do not wear one, people shout at you. Anyone who knows New York well will know that innocent pedestrians are quite often shouted at in the street. But traditionally the shouting is done by members of the city’s thriving homeless community.

However, when coronavirus hit, the New York mayor put the homeless up in the city’s hotels and it turns out to be surprisingly hard to move them out once you have moved them in. Still some kind of shouting quota obviously exists in the city, because currently I find that the people shouting at me are people who would appear to have homes, people who are well enough dressed and do not seem rabid. If they spy you walking through Central Park without a face mask, then they will howl and shout at you.

A New Yorker friend explains that by this point in the electoral cycle mask-wearing has become as hyper-political as everything else. Wearing your mask and forcing other people to wear theirs has become a sign that you are not just a progressive but completely and devotedly on the anti-Trump train. It’s one explanation. But as the news came through that the President had been admitted into Walter Reed hospital I wasn’t sure I could cope with the festival of hubris, hostility and facial humidity. So I escaped to Fire Island for the weekend. Surely people there would be more relaxed?

In the ferry line I was told off for not wearing my mask over my nostrils. Once on board I stole up to the open top deck and cheated slightly. Sitting at the back and to the far side, I waited until the ferry was at full speed, allowed my mask to slip a centimetre beneath my right, ocean-facing nostril and snorted up the free air. On arrival my mask had again slipped beneath my nose and a stranger shouted at me to pull my mask up properly. ‘Seriously,’ he shouted, as he hauled his luggage furiously in the opposite direction.

By the time I checked into the guest house I had booked I suppose I expected the signs everywhere urging residents to wear a mask both inside and outside at all times. It was probably the quantity of these signs that meant I missed the others stating that clothing was optional. After a good night’s sleep I opened the curtains to take in the view of the bay. Between the water and my window strode a man, naked as Adam, his testicles swinging freely in the breeze. His only item of clothing was the surgical mask he wore clamped on his face.

Similar scenes recurred. On the beach many people bathed with nothing on from their waist down, yet with a mask across their face. I am not certain — I do not know whether even Dear Mary would know — how you locate friends or greet people in such a state. A smile will not show. Between the mask and the wind all words of greeting are lost. I found myself lifting my eyebrows a lot, by way of greeting to friends and strangers alike. I suspect I gave off an aura of constant surprise. Which may be the most appropriate response to America today.

While I did not appreciate the zealots on Oxford Street, I think I prefer them to their opposites. Still I find myself uncharacteristically torn. Cast away the mask, or urge others to do so, and (as the President has demonstrated) you are positively inviting the gods to strike. But fixate on them as his opponents are doing and it seems to me that a mask so ardently adopted might never be allowed to slip.

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