Pandemic Problems: I’m afraid of gaiter-wearers

Dear Pandemic Problems,

I was in the check-out line at the grocery store the other day, and the woman behind me was wearing a tie-dye neck gaiter as a mask. While she was supposed to be on the yellow tape line that demarcated six feet of distance between customers, as my groceries were being bagged she got closer and closer to me. But it wasn’t so much this lack of space that annoyed me. (I have also been that person in the grocery line who breached the mandated six feet of distance, too. It’s hard to do in grocery stores.) Rather, it was the fact that she was wearing a gaiter over her mouth, rather than a normal face mask. To me, that screamed that she wasn’t taking the pandemic seriously! Gaiter masks aren’t even masks, and have been shown to not work to block germs — and whenever I see people wearing them I feel like they’re putting all of our lives at risk. I debated if I should say something to her, but I didn’t want to be rude and to have some sort of dramatic stand-off with her in the grocery store. In truth, I wish I had. What if I’m not alone? What if other people feel uncomfortable when this person wears a gaiter mask, too?

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My question to you, is next time I’m stuck in an indoor space with a person wearing a gaiter mask, should I ask them to leave? Or tell them that a gaiter mask isn’t very effective? Or should I just let them carry on with their business. What’s the right thing to do?

Signed,

Aggravated by Gaiters

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Dear Aggravated by Gaiters,

I can feel your anger for the gaiter mask through my laptop screen. I hear you when you say that you don’t like when people wear gaiter masks. For the unaware, a neck gaiter mask is a thin single layer of fabric that is generally used as a casual face covering, often for keeping warm. The CDC recommends that a mask should have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric that covers both your mouth and nose. Does it count if that fabric is hanging loosely, dangling like a dreamcatcher, over your face? Personally, I don’t think so.

But let’s look at the scientific facts about gaiters as masks. In August 2020, multiple outlets ran stories that suggested that wearing a gaiter mask could be worse than wearing no mask at all. No wonder why you think these are horrible and totally ineffective face coverings! The news outlets all covered a study published by researchers at Duke University which examined the effectiveness of different kinds of masks — ranging from cloth masks to surgical masks to gaiter masks. Researchers used a laser to create an ad hoc device to track individual particles released from a person’s mouth while speaking and wearing different kinds of masks, and found that the material of a neck gaiter mask produced more slightly more particles than their baseline of wearing no mask. Hence, the viral headlines, etched in our minds, that gaiter masks are bad — point blank.

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But if you go back to some of those stories, like the one about neck gaiters that ran in The Washington Post, you’ll find a peculiar update:

“Since this story ran, more research has been done on gaiter efficacy. You can read about those new studies by aerosol scientists, who have pushed back against the characterization that thin gaiters may be “worse than nothing,” here.”

The truth is that gaiter masks are less effective than cloth masks and surgical masks. But are they worse than wearing no mask, as some headlines suggested back in 2020? No. Multiple studies have shown that something, anything, covering a person’s face is better than nothing at all. Duke University researchers have even pushed back at the claims, suggesting that their study was taken out of context.

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In the situation at the grocery store, it’s understandable that being near someone wearing a gaiter mask is unnerving. but I encourage you to remember that if you’re wearing a good mask, that also reduces the chances of you being exposed to enough viral COVID-19 particles to get infected. Remember, we wear masks to protect ourselves and each other.

But then there’s the whole part of what wearing a gaiter says about a person’s character. It’s easy to assume that if a person is wearing a gaiter mask in a grocery store — which, though better than nothing, is certainly not the most effective face covering on the market — that person is engaging in high-risk activities outside the grocery store. Or as you say, assume that person doesn’t take the pandemic “seriously.” It’s easy for our brains to cycle through every worst-case scenario, and to tell yourself how this innocent trip to the grocery store is going to end in a severe case of COVID-19 for you — all because this person next to you wore a tie-dye gaiter mask! Admittedly, I’ve been through that anxiety spiral. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve become good at judging each other by our masks — what else is there to go by these days?

But it’s also possible that the story your mind creates about this person isn’t true. Have you considered that perhaps, the gaiter mask wearer forgot her N95 mask at home — and that’s the only face covering she had in the car?

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Now, let’s get to your bigger question: the next time this happens, should you ask a gaiter-masker to leave? Or tell them that a gaiter mask isn’t very effective?

Aggravated by Gaiters, I know you want to do the “right thing.” I hear that you want to be a “good” person — perhaps even save fellow bystanders from the misery of being near the gaiter mask too. Since the start of the pandemic doing the “right thing” has become more challenging as we navigate new social norms.

Personally I don’t think you have the right to ask this person to leave a public space. If the grocery store requires face coverings, technically that’s a face covering. If that’s not up to par with the grocery store’s rules, it’s up to them to ask that person to leave and put a better mask on. However, if a person is in your home with a gaiter mask on — and you feel uncomfortable — I think you have the right to ask them to put on a more effective mask.

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But ultimately, who wears gaiters and where they wear them is out of your control. Certainly this pandemic has shown us how lack of control can drive us all to the edge. But there is one person’s actions you can control: your own. I hate to sound like an Instagram therapist here, but I think your time is better spent focusing on what you can control. Maybe next time this happens, you can move to another line — or ask that person to maintain six feet distance from you. But I don’t think you can ask that person to leave or wear a different mask. I hear you’re afraid and these people make you so angry, but I’m not sure there’s anything you can do that doesn’t require you making the change first.

Finally, I would like to encourage you to show a little compassion for people — and for yourself. It’s been a hard year. Weird things make us tick. But I do want to believe most people are doing the best they can—even those who wear a gaiter as a makeshift mask. It’s better than no mask, after all.

“Pandemic Problems” is a new Salon advice column answering readers’ pandemic problems, sometimes with the help of moral philosophy professors and therapists, who can weigh in on how to “do the right thing.”  Do you have a “pandemic problem”? Email Nicole Karlis at nkarlis@salon.com. Peace of mind and collective commiseration awaits.

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