Of all the behavioural modifications we’ve been asked to make amid the COVID-19 pandemic, masks remain the most contentious.
You don’t see fistfights breaking out at convenience stores over handwashing, nor do you see large-scale protests demanding the right to work when sick. Masks are the pandemic made visible, a constant visual reminder of the changed world we inhabit. Masks are a harm-reduction tool corrupted, a talking point to be debated, politicized, protested.
But masks are among our most useful tools in fighting the spread of COVID-19. As has been repeated many times but apparently cannot be overstated: masks are about keeping other people safe.
And, as of Monday, masks are now mandatory in indoor public spaces in the Winnipeg metropolitan area. This health region is at level orange, or restricted, on Manitoba’s pandemic response scale and will remain there for the next few weeks. A mask mandate is part of that order.
Of course, not everyone is on board. In Winnipeg, social media lit up with reports of people being rude to those who must enforce mask mandates, which mostly means staff at businesses that are open and just trying to survive. You know, the very businesses people complained were closed.
Retail and restaurant staff have also had to become de-facto conflict mediators. In Toronto, a fistfight broke out at a convenience store over masking; "Fighting Over Masks In Public Is The New American Pastime," reads a recent New York Times headline. Closer to home, a man was arrested and charged after a Walmart employee was assaulted while trying to enforce the store’s mandatory-mask policy.
If there’s an overarching criticism of pandemic messaging, it’s that it has been unclear and occasionally confusing. Many people have been struggling with the notable change in tone from April — when things were locked down and we were repeatedly told, "Now is the time to stay home" — to late summer, when you’d be forgiven for asking "What pandemic?" despite the uptick in cases.
Canadian politeness and apologia bled through into how officials talk about public-health measures: things are "suggested," "encouraged" or "recommended." People "may be asked to" engage in further measures. In Manitoba especially, there’s been a baffling amount of foot-dragging on implementing measures such as a mandatory mask mandate.
All of this has set up the people on the ground — the wearers of masks, the people having awkward conversations with reticent family members and friends, the minimum-wage fast-food workers suddenly tasked with enforcement and conflict resolution — for failure. It’s hard to be assertive about something when the public-health messaging has been anything but.
The loudest voices in this should not be the anti-maskers, virus-deniers and entitled individuals who, for reasons unexplained, believe they are impervious to a virus that has shown, over and over again, that it doesn’t discriminate.
Edicts, hard-line rules and fines should not be necessary for a greater-good public-health measure. In an ideal world, people would willingly don masks because it’s the right thing to do, and we’re all in this together.
If we want to avoid more people getting sick and dying, and if we want to avoid further lockdowns and restrictions, adjustments are required in our day-to-day behaviour. Masks, like seatbelts and condoms before them, will become normal. A habit. A reflex. A given.
Worth noting: the same week Winnipeg moved to level orange, the world marked a grim milestone — one million COVID-19 deaths. Wear a mask.