Jeanne Lyet Gassman holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first novel, BLOOD OF A STONE (Tuscany Press), received an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2015. Additional honors include fellowships from Ragdale and the Arizona Commission for the Arts, as well as nominations for a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. Her work has appeared in Bosque 7, Dear America: Reflections on Race, and Barrelhouse, among many others.
We are at a writers' conference on an island off the Yucatan Peninsula in late January of 2020 when the first rumors of a mysterious illness in China trickle in. Tourists from cruise ships clog the streets of Cozumel, searching for the perfect margarita and a gift to take home. During our second week of the conference, Carnival masks hit the shops. Sequined and feathered concoctions sporting glitter and glitz. Not a single N95 or surgical mask on the shelves. Then, two attendees get sick. One woman stays in her room, while the other, fighting a fever, comes to the last panel discussion. She sits in a corner far away from the other members of the audience. We assume she is coming down with the flu. No one thinks about masks.
Our flight back to the States includes a long layover in the Houston Hobby Airport, where we watch masked travelers weave through the crowds like terrified wraiths. They avoid bumping into anyone and cling to the walls and corners as they navigate their way to their gates. It is disturbing to see so many people wearing masks, but Hobby is an international airport. They must be coming from Asia or Europe. That's where the trouble is.
On our near-empty flight to El Paso, a woman sleeps on the seats in the aisle across from us. Sweat droplets bead her face while she huddles, shivering, in her coat. Her skin has an unhealthy gray pallor. She is wearing a mask.
Two weeks after we return to the United States, I experience my first symptoms of a sore throat, fever, and cough. I fight the cough with Nyquil for over a week before I call the doctor. His staff warns, "If you're coughing, you must wear a mask. If you don't have one, we'll provide one when you arrive." Masked and still coughing, I sit in the examining room while my unmasked doctor walks through a checklist of questions. Everything stops when he asks if I have been out of the country in the past thirty days. His hand pauses, pen in mid-air. "Mexico?" he says. "How long ago?" My answer of three weeks sets off alarm. He bolts from the room, returning a few minutes later in a gown, mask, and gloves. After listening again to my chest, he orders tests for flu, strep, and pneumonia. There is no test available yet for this new illness called COVID-19. I am sent home with an extra mask and cough suppressant with orders to self-quarantine for two weeks. All my tests come back negative.
At the end of my quarantine period, I don a mask and venture to Walgreens to purchase more cough medicine and ginger lemon tea. I have been sick for over a month with little improvement. As the country begins to shut down, a new phrase invades our vocabulary: "social distancing." Ever ready to respond to the latest trend, social media offers humorous recommendations. Wear a plague beak mask and a hoop skirt frame when shopping. You will have full protection. Make a hat of swimming pool noodles with spikes sticking out in all directions.
While we joke about pool noodle spikes, COVID spikes on both coasts. Images of medical personnel, their cheeks and foreheads branded with imprints of masks, flood the news. We hear stories of shortages. Not enough PPE, not enough masks. Garbage bags and bandanas to fill the gaps. There are online debates about civilians wearing masks. Do they keep us safe? Are we taking valuable supplies from the medical community? Armies of seamstresses come to the rescue by stitching masks in their homes. When a friend offers to sew masks for anyone who needs them, I put in a request for four—two each for my husband and me—one to wear and one to wash after wearing. She leaves them in a plastic bag tied to her gate. Contactless delivery.
It takes seven weeks for my cough to disappear, and the debate over wearing masks continues to rage. Government and medical officials say save the N95 masks for those who need them, but cloth masks may be ineffective. A YouTube video offers tips on how to make a mask from a paper towel and rubber bands. Even more ineffective. Congressman Gaetz mocks the mask controversy by wearing a gas mask in the House chambers—until he discovers he has been exposed. He tests negative but goes into quarantine.
Dr. Fauci wears a mask at press conferences. Vice President Pence forgets to wear a mask, wears a mask for a photo op, then forgets again. House Speaker Pelosi color co-ordinates her masks with her outfits. Dr. Birx wears scarves. President Trump refuses to wear a mask, either because he feels he looks foolish or it will muss his make-up. On Memorial Day, former Vice-President Biden wears a black mask and black sunglasses. That image becomes his profile picture on Twitter.
There are complaints about masks. They are hot and uncomfortable. They trap germs and carbon dioxide. The hearing impaired cannot see a person's lips. They muffle the voice. Face shields are offered as an alternative. Some adopt them, but others wear nothing, especially outside, although droplets can remain in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours. Depending on the state you live in, your governor advocates for mask-wearing or leaves it up to the individual.
Masks reflect the needs and tastes of the wearer. There are disposable masks, washable masks, pleated fabric masks that tie behind your head, masks with elastic straps around the ears, N95 masks, masks shaped like N95 but not N95, masks with removable nose clips, masks with filter inserts, masks printed with political slogans and team logos, masks made of velvet for those more formal occasions, and masks designed to prevent condensation on your glasses. (A quick tip for the latter: Rub the lenses with Ivory soap and wipe clean with a soft cloth. The soap creates a moisture barrier.) And don't forget the face shields. Some are attached to hats, which vary from fancy sun chapeaus to flowery Easter bonnets. Others have an elastic band that straps around your forehead. Still, some people prefer bandanas and scarves, for either convenience or fashion. Basically, the rule is "cover your nose and mouth."Masks become our gateway to freedom. Armed protestors emerge from their shelters-in-place to demand haircuts, massages, and manicures. They complain about wearing masks—while wearing masks. Some demonstrators wear Halloween masks, oblivious to the fact that holes for the nose and mouth make them useless. As those protests wind down, a second wave, triggered by George Floyd's murder, occurs. These protestors attempt to social distance while marching. Almost all are masked. The President accuses the masked protestors of belonging to Antifa, but nobody knows who Antifa is. Masks provide a relatively safe escape from quarantine and identification.
Masks are a political statement. Those who fear contagion wear them. Those who deny the risk refuse. Based on the popular "Click it or ticket" for wearing seatbelts, a new tagline appears: "Mask it or casket." In the grocery store, we take measure of one another, the masked and unmasked. I fall into the camp of believers. The unmasked are potential carriers, vectors for coronavirus. I wear a mask because I could be infected, and I wear a mask to protect myself from infection. A small inconvenience saves a life.For those who are too timid to rebel completely or those who are too lazy to follow the rules, there is the fashion of wearing but not wearing masks. Masks dangle from one ear or they cover the mouth but not the nose. Another popular choice is the mask as a necklace, ready to slip over the face when required.In New Mexico, our governor opens the state slowly, mandating masks as a condition for all public outings, including stores, parks, and churches. Signs dot the roadsides, reminding folks to #maskup. But visitors from other states ignore her guidelines. They whisk down store aisles, crowding too close, careless about what they touch, and when one of them sneezes, the masked shoppers fix them with a glare.
Although it has been less than a year since COVID-19 reached our shores, it feels like a year, a year of shelter-in-place, a year of sanitary precautions, a year of wearing masks.With our current rate of infection, we are racing toward a world record no one wants. Our President insists there will be no second wave, but it is not clear if the first wave ever ended. In the interim, I remain sequestered and cautious. I wash my hands for at least twenty seconds. I maintain six feet distance, and everywhere I go, I wear a mask.