Editorial: The man in the mask

A man wearing a protective face mask walks by TD Bank in the financial district as phase 2 reopening from COVID-19 restrictions began in Toronto, June 24, 2020.
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Watching the debate over face covering to prevent COVID-19 spread has been fascinating.

Western culture is full of negative portrayals of people wearing masks. Can you think of a positive figure wearing a mask?

U.S. President Donald Trump said he felt like the Lone Ranger and that might be one of the few historical heroes who wore a mask. Still, the Lone Ranger was a bit subversive. There’s also the issue of the portrayal of several ethnic groups and women in that show. However, as a very young child, I was more into the Lone Ranger than Roy Rogers (yes those shows were still on rural TV even at my young age) and my parents still like to tell stories about my big plans to save the TD Bank in Gorrie from robbers riding my Welsh-Hackney cross pony called Imp. I don’t think I wore a mask though.

Since then, there have been few positive role models who have had a need to wear a mask.

The debate about wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19 has been pretty vehement online and sometimes in person and it really shows what a significant time of change we are in right now.

The death of a man near Haliburton after an altercation over wearing a mask at a grocery store in Minden is tragic. The requirement for mask wearing in certain establishments will ramp up confrontation, but there’s little doubt mask wearing in higher risk situations will limit the spread of COVID-19.

Changes to cultural norms take years and generations. The move to wearing a mask in public is being driven into place in a matter of a month or so. Early in the pandemic, there was a suggestion that wearing a mask in some high risk situations was a good idea. Anyone on the health care front line wore a mask.

Now, a few months later, most people own a mask of some sort and it’s become a regular occurrence to make mask-wearing judgements. Early on I would wear a mask into some businesses and not others based on a risk assessment about traffic and aisle space.

Grocery stores have done a good job of keeping people separated and vigilant, but I went into the Canadian Tire next door to my grocery store when they reopened up and put my mask on quickly.

Some in the farm community are reluctant to wear a mask, but I expect it’s as split as the rest of society. I found my local Rona, where they required masks, to be simpler, because you knew the rules and everyone had to follow them. It’s not a big deal.

Most people who have worked or lived on a farm have worn a mask for certain tasks.

When I was growing up we had a swather without a cab that we used to cut hay and mixed grain. I didn’t wear a mask for hay, but often did for cutting grain, which was dry and at times dusty and nasty.

I can remember my dad coming from harvesting grain, covered in dust except for the spot where the mask had been.

Cleaning out a grain bin calls for a mask, as does chopping straw – something we did for years in the dairy barn.

I was frightened early with stories about farmers’ lung. Even so I likely choked back more dust than I should have.

So what’s so different about wearing a mask in public?

It comes down to our assumptions about social interaction. When we’re not doing a work task, we expect to be able to see people’s mouths, which helps communication and the reading of social cues. There’s more freedom without it, no doubt.

But from a practical and disease transmission perspective, there’s little doubt most of us should be wearing masks when we interact with people closely whose disease status we don’t know. It’s a risk-management tool and it works. I’m not sure why we weren’t told that at the start of the pandemic. It’s likely because like many things in these crazy times, we didn’t really know the answer.

The head of the American Centre for Disease Control said recently that the extraordinary escalation in American cases could be under control in eight weeks if people wore masks.

The change to mask wearing is moving quickly in social acceptance.

Regulations pushing businesses to require masks will hasten their use. Within a few more months it will be the norm, if we can’t say already that it is in certain situations.

And then, someday, hopefully sooner than later, the need to wear masks will just fade away, but I wonder what new social trends will have emerged by such a quick change to our cultural norms.

About the author


John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig



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