I roll the windows down and take a long draught of the salt air. I’m stopped at the end of a road that leads to my local beach, my car idling beside the barricades that now block access to the parking lot and sandy path to the water. The airborne nature of COVID-19 has made me question even breathing. But here, just a few hundred feet from the ocean, I know the air is clean. There’s not a person in sight; no need for my face mask here.
It’s been a month now since Massachusetts’ stay-at-home orders grounded me in my house. I take walks outside on self-imposed work breaks. But my rural coastal town doesn’t have sidewalks; I can’t walk far. When I need to clear my head, I buckle my kids into the car and drive along the shoreline near my home. Four weeks into quarantine, my weekend joy rides through town are keeping me sane.
All state beaches are closed, so when I get to the barricades, I kill the engine and step outside my car. It feels good to stretch my legs in a place more than a half-mile from my home. Previously, when I’d see the occasional walker or runner approaching, I’d politely move to the side, maintaining my six feet of social distance. But the recent CDC advisory for all people to wear masks in public has made me think twice. If the person coming down my side of the road isn’t wearing a mask, I slip back into my car. To be honest, seeing a bare-faced person in public makes me a little uncomfortable now.
While I’m not in the high-risk category because of medical needs, the threat of coronavirus feels significant in my life right now. My husband died in a hiking accident on our vacation last summer leaving me with four young children. For the last nine months, grief has left me feeling vulnerable as I navigate my new life without my partner. So much rests on my shoulders now. Pandemic has only intensified my need to feel safe. If I were to get seriously ill, who would take care of my children?
Last Saturday, I conducted data collection on my drive through town to the beach. How many people could I find wearing face masks? Since the new CDC advisory, my Instagram feed is filled with masked faces. On my 15-minute drive, I expected to see them everywhere.
En route to the ocean, I counted the whole way. A woman wearing a homemade fabric mask as she walked her dog. A man unloading a delivery truck, his face half-covered in a disposable mask. Twelve masked people in all. As I drove along, tallying numbers, I began to envision myself on patrol, like a small-town cop in an old movie. I smiled and relaxed behind the wheel. It pleased me to see folks doing their civic duty.
However, I quickly realized that for every person I saw masked, there were at least two who weren’t wearing them. A teenager walked out of the grocery store, his face fully visible beneath his baseball cap. An older man stood at his mailbox talking to a neighbor, six feet apart, but neither of them masked.
I understand that the CDC recommendation is an “advisory” and not an “order,” but didn’t their request make good sense? Why would anyone choose not to follow it?
As my car wove through town, what began as innocent observation quickly became a personal quest for righteousness. I wondered, Who are these people? Why don’t they care? I wanted to holler out the window, to ask these bare-faced folks if they understood they were putting everybody at risk. I could feel my frustration rise as I drove along. I’ve followed the stay-at-home orders to the letter since our governor handed them down. People in my community are sick; many are dying. To me, wearing a mask seems not just reasonable but necessary. Who would be so foolish? I wanted to know. Why can’t they just follow the rules? What kind of a Neanderthal thinks he can outwit a novel virus pandemic?
I know I’m not alone in this tendency to demonize another, to assume I know their intentions. As New York City, San Francisco and other areas of the country mandate mask-wearing, mask shaming is following in quick pursuit. However much we desire personal freedom, we don’t like it when other people break the rules. We quickly pass judgment on others, assuming the worst.
Since COVID-19 hit the news, I have viewed wearing a mask as synonymous with loving my neighbor. My position has been simple: stay home, save lives, and wear your mask. Christian love desires to protect the vulnerable, and certainly masks help do that. But all too easily I can watch protests on the news or simply drive through town and instead make masks the sole measure of personal righteousness. I look down my own masked nose and silently assess my neighbors’ character. I critique their intelligence, their political sensibilities, their empathy and love, even their spiritual depth. In the privacy of my car, the words of the Pharisee run through my head. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”
The Pharisee in question had constructed a hundred cut-and-dry rules about living that left little room for grace. They believed they could determine another’s fitness for the kingdom with a glance at their behavior. Lest we judge all the Pharisees unfairly, let it be said: they were good people. They loved God deeply and tried to follow him wholeheartedly. But Jesus’ encounters make it clear that there were at least some who let judgment get in the way of love.
We must all do what we can to flatten the curve. Adherence to CDC guidelines is vital. But as COVID-19 continues its rampage across the U.S., we must be careful to remember that wearing a face mask is not the sole measure of righteous living, a qualifier for love. If we are not careful, masks — like political affiliation, social positions and religious beliefs — will quickly define who is in and who is out. The wearing or the lack thereof will only further polarize a society that instead desperately needs not only physical health but love and grace — emotional and spiritual healing too.
On a recent phone call with a friend, I turned down the opportunity to get together — even with six feet of social distancing. I’m still trying to figure out what boundaries work well for me in this uncertain season. My insistence on extra social distancing and face masks might appear as overreaction, until a person learns my story. I’ve worried I’d get some eye rolls, but every time I’ve shared my reasons for my choices, I’ve been met with grace. How quickly I extend that grace to someone who agrees with me. How shamefully fast do I deny it to others who don’t.
If we are truly to love our neighbor well during the pandemic — and after — we must work to meet the people behind the masks. And, perhaps hardest for me, we must be willing to love those who choose not to wear them.