Editorial: About the Mask

So we were down in Greenport during a brief spate of sun over Memorial Day Weekend, and the village was pretty jam packed. Not quite as packed as your average holiday weekend, but certainly more so than it has been in months.

It seemed that pretty much everyone was wearing a mask, although many people were wearing them down around their necks, and people who were eating ice cream were definitely going to gobble down their frozen treat before putting their mask back on.

It seemed to unnerve people to be photographed in their masks on the street. 

We’ve taken a lot of street photos over the years. Usually if you are out on the street quietly taking photos, people don’t even give you a second glance. But the camera brought out a tension that we couldn’t quite place. 

When we got back to the office to have a look at the photos, it was clear that something was up. In nearly every frame, the masked peoples’ eyes can be seen staring directly into the camera. The looks seemed to be expressions of violation and concern, almost as if they’d been captured in a compromising position. They were haunting.

Wearing a mask over our faces is, quite primally, a contradiction to our basic nature as humans. We are made for interactions involving a smile. It’s so innate that, when we began to substitute text messages for in-person conversations, we developed the entire new language of emojis to convey what a smile has conveyed throughout recorded history.

When we can’t see each others’ smiles, we are all a little more vulnerable to missed social cues. This is, in itself, a source of serious tension. A person’s full expression gives us a lot of clues to how we should interact with them. We are hardwired to use this information every second we spend with other human beings.

But if we could invent emojis, we can figure this one out too. It likely won’t take long before a new language comes out of wearing masks.

As we’ve learned more and more about the Covid-19 coronavirus, a scientific consensus has developed that this disease is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, when interacting with other people in close quarters. Anyone who tells you the jury is still out on this probably also has a wacky disproven theory about climate change. A face mask traps your respiratory droplets, protecting those around you from getting sick.

Now, you may say to yourself, ‘well, self, I am healthy. No one has anything to worry about because of my breathing,’ and this is a fine and dandy thought to have, but it is not true.

Just before we went to press, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced they believe about 35 percent of Covid-19 carriers never develop symptoms. While epidemiologists studying the virus had long expected that percentage to be high, putting an actual number to the problem helps make it real in our minds: One in three people don’t know they’re sick, and they may never find out they’ve been sick unless they later get tested for antibodies to the virus.

Wearing masks saves lives. It’s the least we can do, as the economy on Long Island reopens, to honor those who have already died here, and to show respect for what so many of us have sacrificed since this tragedy began. 

There’s nothing normal about hiding your smile behind a mask. But wearing one, now, is the fastest way to get New York to return to the normalcy of the days before the coronavirus turned our world upside down. 

As of this writing, nearly 1,900 Suffolk County residents had died of Covid-19, nearly two percent of the total deaths in the entire United States. We are walking out of the spotlight of being the epicenter of a global pandemic. We’ve lost too much to lose ground now.

We aren’t being asked to ship out on destroyers for the South Pacific, or to climb into the ball turret of a B17 for a bombing run over Europe. It’s a simple thing to do. Protect your neighbors, and protect the people you love. Wear a mask.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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