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As coronavirus continues to spread, mask etiquette is getting intense

Tension between runners and walkers. Disputes over grocery-store facial attire. N95 shame. As coronavirus continues to spread, mask etiquette is getting intense. It used to be the people wearing masks who got the looks. Now they’re the ones giving them.

Runners and pedestrians crossed the Mass. Ave. Bridge into Cambridge. People are taking a variety of approaches to face masks.
Runners and pedestrians crossed the Mass. Ave. Bridge into Cambridge. People are taking a variety of approaches to face masks.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Let’s join mask vigilante Martha Sullivan on her walk along Brook Path in Wellesley on Wednesday morning. In a span of minutes, she politely asked one unmasked jogger if she would wear a mask tomorrow (“I’ll try”), and then pulled a passive-aggressive move that involved speaking loudly into her cellphone in hopes that a second passing unmasked jogger would overhear her.

“I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY PEOPLE DON’T WEAR MASKS,” she said to a reporter on the other end of the call, for the jogger’s benefit. Then: “He ignored me.”

How to make a mask without sewing
Kayla Girdner, an instructor at Gather Here, demonstrates how to make a face mask that doesn't require any sewing. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

It used to be the people wearing masks who got the looks. Now they’re the ones giving them.

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Never mind that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth masks in public settings where social distancing is hard to maintain, that Massachusetts and some cities and towns are urging or ordering residents to cover their faces, and that a new study suggests that simply speaking could transmit the COVID-19 virus.

Some people still consider the whole germ-transmission thing a hoax. Or they don’t think they’ll get infected, or don’t like having their glasses fog, or their Amazon order hasn’t yet arrived, and they can’t sew, or, apparently, tie a bandana. Or, the rules are so confusing about what you’re supposed to wear where that they actually think they’re doing the right thing and that it’s the mask scolds who are in the wrong.

Or, whatever.

Mask tension is turning intense, as believers try to enforce a social contract that some others want no part of.

On Monday, when Brother’s Supermarket on Dudley Street began requiring people to cover their faces if they wanted to shop (and selling or giving away single-use masks for shoppers in need), a few people turned angry, said Ambioris Fernandez, a co-owner. Some threatened to sue, others pulled out their cellphones and filmed mask-related encounters.

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“We are risking our lives so that people can come get food,” he said, “and I’m getting harassed.”

In Salem, with some 10 to 20 percent of the population still not covering their faces when visiting essential businesses despite the declaration of a public health emergency, scofflaws can now be fined $50 for a first offense, $150 for a second offense, and $300 for a third offense.

The goal is not to be punitive, said the Salem Board of Health’s David Greenbaum, but rather to “gain compliance.”

Risking death is one thing, apparently, but 50 bucks? That’s another.

But even as pressure mounts to cover up, people have reasons for going bare-faced. Tragically, as COVID-19 appears to infect and kill Black Americans at disproportionally high rates, Black men say it’s covering their face that makes them feel unsafe. Two Black men, for example, have said they were kicked out of a Walmart in Illinois for wearing protective gear.

Months into the pandemic, many are still confused about face-wear. But how can we not be? The messaging on the most basic question — can you walk outside mask-free if you can keep a safe social distance from others? — is changing and inconsistent.

The CDC and Governor Charlie Baker seem to say you can go outside without covering your face as long as you can safely socially distance. Mayor Martin J. Walsh seems to say you cannot.

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The CDC “recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain…”

Mayor Walsh: “I’m asking everyone and anyone to wear a mask covering their face when you leave your house. That means shopping, going for a walk.”

Governor Baker: “Today we’re issuing a Department of Public Health advisory that … recommends that people wear a mask or cover their face in public when they can not safely socially distance.”

What is a safe social distance? That’s getting less clear by the day. A new study, not yet published in a peer-reviewed publication, shows that droplets from runners and brisk walkers may be carried on a wake of air behind them 15 feet or more.

Remember how Boston motorists used to hate cyclists and vice-versa? Well now that no one drives anywhere anymore, that fight has been at least temporarily reborn as runners vs. walkers. The conflict is playing out in real life and also on Selfish Runner Twitter.

“Dude I’m going to pick up medication, which is ESSENTIAL, and you’re running by me 3 ft away huffing and puffing,” @tanyacash21tweeted. “Go down a back road and/or wear a mask at least.”

And for the other side: “How are runners making anything worse for people?” @Emjay1028 wrote. “Like you, I’ve been keeping distance, wearing a mask, etc. I see people walking in the middle of the sidewalk, people not wearing masks & tons of smokers. Why are runners the issue?”

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Even as people come under attack for not wearing protection, people are being shamed for wearing too much.

That was the situation law professor Stacey Dogan found herself in at Whole Foods, when she wore a soiled N95 mask she’d kept from when her son had sanded and painted the porch years ago, and she could sense the other shoppers’ disgust.

Everyone knows those masks should be saved for front-line medical workers.

“I wanted to explain that I tried to donate it,” she said. But like a person wearing a fur coat that was inherited not bought new, she knew she wouldn’t have the opportunity to present her case to the silent judges.

Her answer to the bad optics is perhaps the most pandemic thing of all: She scraped the lettering off the mask and has continued to wear it, too exhausted to find a socially acceptable mask. “Fun times,” she said.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.