As businesses began reopening this week, Ellen Gemba was excited to be headed to a salon for her first haircut in months. First, though, she had to stop at an ATM in downtown Canton, and sidestep the man who was exiting without a face mask.
“I don’t want to die,” Gemba, 62, a client manager for an insurance broker, said as she tightened her own facial covering and explained her choice to wear one. (The man told a Globe reporter he had simply left his mask in the car).
“I think it’s the only way to stop this,” she said. “This is something we have control over, and it seems a small thing to do.”
But as more people emerge from home confinement and head out into the public this week, their different approaches to wearing a mask — and in some cases outright refusal — could undercut efforts to stop the pandemic’s spread.
There are those who order masks from Etsy, and some who will wear them even when alone in their car. Others take a more skeptical stance: Why wear a mask when I can cross the street? Why wear a mask if I’m not sick? How come I have to, if she’s not?
In Cambridge one recent afternoon, Eric Schwartz was sitting on a stoop in Central Square, sharing a joint with a friend. Neither was wearing a mask even as others strolled by.
“I don’t need it,” said Schwartz, 26, who said he manages a nearby bed and breakfast. “I use paper towels when I have to open doors, and I run a lot.”
In early May, Governor Charlie Baker issued an order requiring face coverings in public places where social distancing is not possible. The requirement does not apply to children 2 years old and younger, or those with medical issues that would prevent them from wearing a mask.
Several communities have also enacted mask mandates, with the threat of fines, although they say the effort is more about awareness than punishment.
Public support for masks in Massachusetts appears strong. In a survey released in early May, 40 percent of respondents said they wore a mask anytime they left their home, while an another 51 percent said they wore a mask when inside a public place.
But some have chafed at the requirement, and in some circles masks have become a symbol of political correctness and government overreach. President Trump has refused to wear a mask in public and this week appeared to make fun of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for doing so.
In the Boston area, the vast majority of those encountered by Globe reporters in recent days were wearing masks. If they weren’t, they were quick to pull them out of a pocket, purse, or shoulder bag.
“If someone comes near us, we’ll put them on,” said Morgan Deng, who appeared to be in violation of the rules with her husband as they enjoyed the warmth of a bench at the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown one recent afternoon until they showed they were holding their masks.
“We fully support everyone wearing them,” Deng said.
The effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of disease has been well documented. One recent study in the International Journal of Nursing Studies found that community mask use could be particularly beneficial in stopping pre-symptomatic patients from spreading the disease through coughing or sneezing, and was more effective than hand hygiene alone.
But inconsistent health advisories about the benefits of masks at the onset of the pandemic undermined public confidence in their effectiveness, making it more difficult to convince people to wear them now, public officials and health analysts said. What’s more, American culture is not used to wearing masks for a variety of reasons, from racial stereotyping of Asian communities to a sense of machismo.
“They feel they’re sort of looking weak,” said Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, who published the book “The Psychology of Pandemics” before the COVID-19 outbreak.
People may also have a psychological reaction to being told by their government to do something, Taylor said. They may be more willing to wear a mask if they felt it was helping their country, he said.
“What’s going to happen is social pressure — peer pressure is enormously influential — and when people start wearing masks, people who don’t will feel like” they are the outsiders, he said. “Community leaders need to send out the message that you need to wear your mask, it’s a patriotic thing, and they need to wear them as well.”
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who ordered the use of masks in public in late April, said he would have done so weeks earlier had he fully understood their effectiveness. The order allows police to fine violators $300, though officers have been passing out educational flyers — and in some cases masks — rather than tickets.
“I didn’t run for mayor to make people wear masks and kick them out of churches,” he said. “But let’s do the things we can; it’s a preventative measure, and people need to see that.”
Boston has not issued an order requiring masks, but police have embarked on educational campaigns to alert residents to Baker’s directive and public health guidelines. In Cambridge, police have not cited anyone for violating an emergency order mandating that residents wear face masks when they leave their homes. The order, which took effect last month, allows police to fine violators up to $300.
“In general, our officers have been really pleased with the compliance,” said Jeremy Warnick, a spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department, which has been distributing face masks to residents every day.
In Brookline, which also mandates masks, nanny Sarah Gaudet pushed one child in a stroller while watching another ride a bike in Emerson Garden, a mask under her chin. She had it in case anyone approached “because they tell me to,” she said.
Meanwhile, Duncan Grant, 20, a student at Brown University, was running sprints on a nearby street with a mask on.
“I always have it when I leave my house,” he said.
In downtown Canton, a hairstylist stepped out of a salon and took off her mask to sit by herself along a wall, eating a sandwich. Nearby, Jenna Terrio, 29, went for her daily lunch walk with her mask on, and dodged a man walking in the opposite direction without one.
“It’s good to have it with you, if you need to use it,” Terrio said.
But in South Boston, after leaving a newly opened barber shop, Nick Turriago, 23, said he didn’t feel the need to wear a mask while getting a haircut.
“It’s just uncomfortable, and the barber didn’t mind,” he said while making his way down Broadway. “I don’t think the mask is going to make much of a difference.”
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.