My mask protects you; your mask protects me!

Photo by cottonbro on

Staying home, social distancing and wearing masks to protect each other are “the people’s weapons” against the coronavirus and our federal government’s inept response to the pandemic. Let’s use them all.

President John F. Kennedy exhorted Americans to, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Today we must ask what we can do for our family, friends, community and country to help fight the scourge of COVID-19. Fortunately, the answers are straight forward: Stay home; stay six feet or more away from others while in public venues; and wear a mask in places where you can’t reliably maintain your distance. 

“So, will wearing a mask protect me from the virus?” you ask. 

Possibly. It can give you a limited degree of protection, depending on the type of mask. (All N-95 masks should be reserved for the protection of health care professionals, though not all will protect their patients. The filtering capacity of other masks varies, but none give complete protection.) 

“Then why wear one?” 

Because wearing a mask can keep you from unknowingly spreading coronavirus to others. And if we all wear masks, even simple face coverings improvised from T-shirts lined with paper towels, we could take a big step toward bringing the transmission of the virus to a halt. 

Consider the dramatic differences in these mid-April COVID-19 death counts from cultures where mask wearing is common or ubiquitous and where it is not. Deaths in low-mask-wearing cultures: Italy, 22,745; Spain 19,847; USA, 35,500. Deaths in high-mask-wearing cultures: Taiwan, 6; South Korea, 230; Japan, 190. (Source [highly recommended]: Masks Save Lives,  

Noting these statistics, the Czech Republic on March 18 passed a law requiring everyone to wear a mask when they leave their home. As of April 5, the country of 10 million had recorded just 23 deaths from COVID-19, and had pretty much “flattened the curve” of new infections. The Czechs have in place the same stay-at-home, social distancing and personal hygiene rules that have been adopted by many American states. It’s wearing masks when in pubic that accounts for their greater success against the virus. 

How does universal mask wearing save lives?  

Many people — one of them could be you, or me — have the virus and don’t know it. They may show no symptoms, or, initially, show mild symptoms such as a cough that could be caused by a cold, seasonal allergies or COVID-19. If someone in that condition goes to, say, a grocery store — even if they manage with some difficulty to stay six feet apart from the other shoppers and checkout clerks — by coughing, yawning or just breathing they can spread the virus onto surfaces which others may touch. Additionally, it is possible that, once exhaled, tiny virus-laden droplets can remain airborne for several hours, meaning that others can breathe in what the infected person has breathed out. (Whether such droplets can remain airborne, or find their way into a building’s air circulation system, is still being debated by experts — but we certainly don’t want to risk learning the answer the hard way.) 

However, if you’re wearing a mask and you cough or exhale, as much as 90 to 100% of your expelled particles are caught in your own mask. If others wear masks, you will be protected from their exhalations and doubly protected because your own mask will filter out most of the negligible amount of moisture that escapes through their mask. The Czech coronavirus battle cry has become “MY MASK PROTECTS YOU; YOUR MASK PROTECTS ME.”  

Common sense should apply to mask wearing, of course. Masks should cover both your mouth and nose, and fit snugly to keep air from leaking around the edges. If you find that your mask fogs your glasses, you can put a little tape over the top edge of the mask to direct the vapor from your exhalations downward.

Once you put your mask on, leave it on. If you take it off to sneeze or cough, or sip some coffee, you are defeating its purpose.

Also, once you remove your mask, you should disinfect it before wearing it again. Remember that as well as exhaling you inhale, and the force of sucking air into your lungs can pull nearby airborne droplets and other contaminants such as dust to the outer surface of your mask, making it a potential source of infection. When you remove your mask, avoid touching the surface if possible. In any case, wash your hands thoroughly after removing and storing the mask.

If you wear a paper-based mask, disinfect it by storing it for at least three days — the length of time scientists believe the coronavirus can “live” on a porous surface — before using it again. (To be extra safe, let it sit for five days or more.) Keep several spare masks on hand so you can rotate them, using a freshly disinfected mask each time you go out.

If you wear a cloth-based mask or face covering such as a scarf, wash it and your hands in hot, soapy water whenever you take it off, then let it sit for three days to dry and completely disinfect. Again, you’ll need at least two cloth masks so you have a clean one to use while the one you last wore is drying.

Since most cloth, even if double-layered, tends to be more porous than the paper used for commercially manufactured masks, it’s a good idea to use a “filter” inside cloth masks. A team of women clothing designers tested a variety of materials, and determined that “shop grade” paper towels (usually blue colored) make excellent filters. When doubled, the towels can filter out as much as 93% of particles down to three microns in size, which are among the tiniest airborne droplets.

Shop towels are usually available at hardware outlets and automotive stores. If such towels become unobtainable, coffee filters work reasonably well as air filters. (For my own use, I simply fold a shop towel in half and place it inside my cloth mask. I find it easy to breath through the two layers of cloth and two layers of paper while shopping and doing other non-strenuous activities.) If you use a shop towel or other paper filter, dispose of the filter each time you remove your mask.

Sick people who have trouble breathing and toddlers should not wear masks — and they should not be in public places where masks are needed. 

Finally, we need to exercise common sense about when to wear masks, and when they are not needed. Essentially, masks should be worn when people cannot reliably stay at least six feet apart from each other, especially in indoor spaces such as grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, car shops, subways and buses. It also makes sense for anyone who will be in contact with the public, including store clerks, police officers, EMTs and transit workers to wear masks.

Similarly, people who work in close proximity with each other should wear masks while on the job. For example, construction work, or at least housing construction is considered an essential business and allowed to keep operating in most states with coronavirus shutdowns. But it is difficult, if not impossible for construction workers to maintain safe social distancing, especially when heavy pieces of equipment must be lifted by more than one worker. Additionally, it is often impossible for factory or restaurant workers or those on delivery assembly lines to maintain proper distancing. Wearing masks and, in many cases, gloves, can significantly reduce the spread of infection in these situations.

On April 15, New York State mandated that masks be worn whenever people find themselves in circumstance where they can’t maintain the proper social distance. However, the mandate, sensibly, does not apply to situations where people can easily and reliably keep their distance — when walking, jogging or bicycling outdoors, for example. As our mask mores and etiquette evolve in the coming months and years, we are likely to find that “best practice” mask use would involve carrying a mask when you’re exercising outdoors, in case you unexpectedly find yourself in circumstances that require one. (At the time of this writing several states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Hawaii, as well as Loredo County, Texas and the city of Los Angeles have adopted mask mandates similiar to New York’s. In some states, essential businesses are required to provide masks for their employees and to require that their employees wear them while on the job. It is our hope similar rules will be adopted nationally and around the globe until the pandemic has safely passed.)

It will take at least 18 months, and possibly three to four years for scientists to come up with a safe, reliable COVID-19 vaccine and for it to be universally distributed. Meanwhile, at present, the federal government, and the governments of may states, are failing to protect us against the spread of the coronavirus. If anything, they are making its spread more likely.

All “we the people” can do is to defend ourselves with the best weapons we have available — staying at home, social distancing and wearing masks when in public. Masks, then, can be seen as the people’s weapon against the virus and the insanity that’s being promoted by many of the powers that be. And what beautiful, low-tech, cheap and readily available weapons they are.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of good information about making masks online. By informing ourselves, we can protect each other by wearing them.  

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

Here are some useful articles on masks from around the net:

Important information about face coverings not being communicated

Help! My Mask Fogs My Glasses

CDC: How to make and wear no-sew face coverings

Patterns and instructions for sewing face masks (Scroll over images for links to more information)

Face Masks Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review (This is scientific Preprint — a paper prepared for scientific publication that has not yet been peer reviewed.)

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