Unaware of the implications: how people wear their mask

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Sharon Jo

Over the summer, I worked a part-time job as a barista and often interacted with customers ordering across the counter. Our store policy required individuals to wear a mask before entering —  a rule almost everyone followed.

But to different extents.

There are a variety of forms of expressions that people use to indicate something about themselves, such as their hobbies, hometown or age. Typically, it’s more implicit and often requires a conversation between two people to find out more about someone. However, during the pandemic, I’ve quickly noticed that there’s a new way that people express themselves: how they choose to wear their mask.

The choice of whether or not to wear a mask quickly became political due to the early controversies of the virus. People were quick to point fingers at their opposing political party or to blame age groups and generations like “the boomers.”

But as this pandemic dragged on for several months, we have all become too comfortable, as if the virus suddenly disappeared when summer began. After observing each customer that came in to order their drink, I realized that the failure to wear a mask properly, or at all, wasn’t from one specific group of people, but varied —especially among the younger generations. This became an attitude issue for all of us.

Too often I would pass people outside with their masks resting from one side of their ear, covering their chin, or merely just their mouth, which missed the point about the need to cover both the mouth and the nose. 

What part of this was so difficult to follow?

Whether it was using a bandana, a cloth, a surgical mask, a valve mask or just using the top of one’s shirt, the choice of face covering quickly became a symbol of one’s attitude towards others, the pandemic and the country. After more information became known about COVID-19, news spread about which types of masks were more effective than others, warning consumers not to wear ineffective bandanas and valve masks, and to let doctors use the much-needed surgical masks.

But I hardly saw a change in what people wore. 

An increasing number of companies also began designing and selling masks, and they also became a form of fashion expression. But that wasn’t enough of an incentive to listen.

Many people began comparing the U.S. to other countries, typically in Asia where wearing masks had already been implemented — whether it was due to bad air conditions, or if someone had a cold and didn’t want to spread it around — and their citizens had less of a problem spreading the virus.

Yet, others would oppose the argument, stating that the people of these countries were part of a much more group-centered initiative, and that America was different. This difference was still evident, more than ever, during an unprecedented time like this year.

Our attitudes toward the current state of the pandemic can now be illustrated by how much you can see of each other’s faces: do they care about themselves? About the people around them? About the toll it took on society?

We are not aware of how our seemingly insignificant decisions, like covering our faces properly when stepping outside of our homes, give off different implications of who we are. While some issues remain controversial, our decision to wear effective masks, and to call out those who fail to do so, doesn’t have to be.

As college students, we are the next group to influence society and to work toward building a more successful, stronger and safer society, and it starts with our outlook and approach. Whether it is for social justice, environmental issues or public health, what we choose to do and the messages we convey will shape the outcome of our efforts. 

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