Acquiring masks has been too much of a community adventure

By , Daily Memphian Published: May 06, 2020 3:05 PM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

All the different masks, where do they all come from?

From a daughter’s teacher, a mother’s sorority sister, a neighbor down the hall. 

From a wife’s boss or a boss’s wife. 

From a box of paper medical masks left over from a prior family health issue. Or a used N95 in the garage originally bought for lawn care or home repair. 

From local entrepreneurs on Etsy or Twitter, local restaurants adding masks to food delivery or, in at least one case, from a generous listener to your radio show.

From wherever you can find them, which is almost certainly not on a store shelf. At a Midtown hardware store and suburban big box retailer this week, mask usage ran something close to 50-50, but you couldn’t acquire them in the stores. The shelves where masks would be were affixed with signage limiting purchases, but this was a kind of taunt: The shelves were bare. There were none to be purchased. 

All of those answers came from an informal survey of friends and a self-selecting group of social-media respondents. But the diversity was mimicked by what I saw during three trips to big stores this week, an East Memphis grocery joining the other two.

Reusable cloth masks of various types – some Grizzlies and Tigers and (sigh) Cowboys, some floral prints and heart patterns and solids – were most common, followed by disposable medical masks, the occasional reusable N95s trailing. 

And while I say 50-50, it was a little better than that. I kept count: 142-126 in favor of mask usage. 

But I was a generous grader. Among that 142 were the customer who pulled her mask down below her chin when she got to the register and needed to communicate with the clerk, the employee who walked around with a mask pulled below his nose. 

Still, I found these numbers encouraging considering the moderate guidance and minimal assistance we’ve gotten on this particular public health issue. As with too much else these days, we’ve mostly been on our own: Want a mask? Good luck. Everybody’s looking for a connect.

The diversity of masks and their origins would be charming if it wasn’t yet another sign of official dysfunction in our collective approach to controlling a pandemic. 

In the beginning, there was hand-washing and social distancing, and as we “reopen” the economy, that first line of defense may also be the last. But this stool always wobbled on two legs. 

There was mixed messaging on masks. Our medical resource situation was so chaotic that individual mask use was discouraged to save resources for the actively sick and health-care providers. People were told masks wouldn’t help them much and then they were told, by many of the same public health officials, that they should wear them. Maybe honesty, from the beginning, would have been the best policy.

When I inquired about mask procurement on social media, I got less pushback than I expected. One person did assert that wearing masks was pointless “other than perpetuating fear for partisan reasons.” 

I mostly don’t argue with people on social media anymore (this is what’s known as “self care”), but assume this was a statement about the self-protective efficiency of cloth masks. 

Herrington: Bootleg or DIY masks a sign of Memphis coming together to stay apart

Here’s the short version of what’s true about cloth masks: They are much better at limiting spread from carriers (“egress”) than preventing spread to wearers (“ingress”). Health-care providers wear medical-grade masks – and are painstaking about their removal – to protect themselves while dealing with sick patients. That’s why they’re called “personal protective equipment.”

The cloth mask your friend Janet sewed for you doesn’t fully do this, it’s true. It won’t do a great job of keeping you from inhaling COVID particles that might be in the air. But it actually does seem to do a great job of keeping you from spreading them, which you could be doing even if you don’t have symptoms and don’t know you’re a carrier. 

A recent article in The Atlantic – “The Real Reason to Wear a Mask” – corrals the science on this, citing research that shows that cotton masks reduce the emission of particles from the wearer by more than 90%. Fewer particles in the air means both a lower chance of infection and a better chance that infections are less severe. The piece concludes that “if 80 percent of people wear masks that are 60 percent effective, easily achievable with cloth,” then we can get to a reproduction rate of less than one. That means fewer than one new person infected by each infected person. That’s the number at which it’s believed the disease will begin to die out. 

If the spread of COVID can be exponential, so can slowing its spread. 

Mask-wearing when around others is less about protecting yourself than about engaging in a social compact – the more people in a shared space wearing them, the more that protection for all builds. If some among us are too blustery to stoop to such a thing as thinking of others, we don’t need everybody, just most everybody. 

Mask-wearing when around others is less about protecting yourself than about engaging in a social compact – the more people in a shared space wearing them, the more that protection for all builds. If some among us are too blustery to stoop to such a thing as thinking of others, we don’t need everybody, just most everybody.  

This frustratingly piecemeal approach to a public-health effort – to acquiring, distributing and encouraging mask use – may finally be changing. A renewed push to make mask-wearing common in Memphis and in Tennessee seems to be afoot. 

A proposed ordinance requiring citizens to wear facial coverings in public settings has been working its way through City Council, prompting reasonable questions about enforcement and availability. The City Council had already passed a resolution urging businesses to require masks. 

At the state level, 39,000 masks were delivered to businesses in Shelby County this week to assist with reopenings, part of a purchase of 5 million masks by the state government. At Wednesday’s daily briefing, Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter announced that the department would be distributing masks at their main office, at satellite clinics, testing facilities and other points of contact. Elected officials in North Memphis have begun a push to supply free masks to some of their constituents. 

That these efforts are trailing rather than preceding an economic loosening is emblematic of our fitful national navigation of the pandemic, but late truly is better than never.

Requirements can be tough. Recent attempts at governmental mask mandates in Oklahoma and Ohio have been reversed, with the latter’s governor calling it “a bridge too far.” 

But if roughly half of shoppers are wearing them in Memphis already – as my informal eyeball survey suggests – can more encouragement and better availability help close the gap toward that 80% number? 

One friend returned to his office job this week, and when he did, all employees got a six-pack of reusable cloth masks. Masks available at points of contact, public and private, is one way to close that gap. 

Another friend said he didn’t start wearing one until last week. “I would love to say that I had an attack of conscience, but I would be lying. Public shame was definitely the motivator,” he allowed.

I’m not quite advocating that. 

In fact, despite the anecdotal, I didn’t see anyone reacting to anyone else’s mask status at any of my stops. Just people going about their business as quickly as they could. Maybe some of those doing so unmasked were trying to make a point. But here’s betting most were just taking the path of least resistance. If wearing masks matters – and all evidence is that it does – then we need to make it easier for people to do the right thing. Here’s hoping that’s finally happening. 

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

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