COVID-19 Etiquette: Face Masks

For the better part of a year, face masks were a routine part of getting dressed to leave the house — even as the act of stepping out became less frequent for many people.

But as recommendations and even mandates for wearing face masks return amid a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, this physically small — but politically weighty — item is increasingly the target of frustration and confusion.

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We asked a trio of experts for advice on talking about masks as part of our COVID-19 etiquette series

How do you ask someone to put on a face mask? And how do you tell someone they’re wearing their mask incorrectly?

Shelly Rauvola, assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at DePaul University: Telling someone you see to wear a mask when they don’t have one I think is difficult to do. I’ve seen in restaurants and on buses that they have masks available if people don’t have them. To the extent that those are available, direct them to use those. 

As for actual positioning of the mask, start off by making a comment that’s very focused on yourself. If you see someone wearing a mask wrong say, “Oh, this is really embarrassing, I used to this all the time actually, but your mask has to go over your nose.” Be a little self-deprecating and people can open up to hearing that feedback as opposed to being upset or defensive.

Dr. Crystal Clark, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine: If it’s family, it’s much easier to say or ask directly. If you’re out and about, I would base it on the establishment’s requirements as a signal as to whether it would be an appropriate thing to ask. There are a lot of public spaces where it isn’t being mandated yet.

If you’re uncomfortable and you’re in an all-masked situation say, “Hey, they require you to have your mask on,” and point to the sign. Or ask, “Do you have your mask? It’s required in the store.” And then people need to be prepared for the response: someone might be upset, angry or offended. But don’t argue with anyone about it. Just move on.

If a person is not wearing a mask over their nose, I would say to that person, with thoughtfulness and compassion, “I thought I would let you know that if you’re wearing a mask to prevent infection and spreading the virus, you have to keep it above your nose.” Or say, “Did you realize that your mask dropped below your nose? I thought I would just share that with you. If it’s not worn right, you’re not really protected.”

Dr. Susan Bleasdale, medical director of infection prevention and control at University of Illinois Health: When someone is not wearing a mask right, you can say, “Hey, these masks really work, but when you wear it below your nose it’s not covering key parts that you need to keep you protected.”

Or, “It’s best if you wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth. That helps protect you and me.” Coaching in that way is better than saying, “This is the best way to do it.”

Face masks are one form of protection, but the COVID-19 vaccine is another. People who are fully vaccinated may wonder: Why should I wear mask? What do you say to that?

Bleasdale: I think there’s a little anger that people think that masking is just to protect those who are unvaccinated. But it’s really also to protect yourself because there’s a chance, even though you’re vaccinated, there’s a small chance you can get COVID.

Rauvola: Personally, what I seem to find is the best tactic is talking about the fact that not everyone is vaccinated and specifically talk about the parts of the population who can’t get vaccinated, not the folks who are choosing not to. The fact is COVID is still around and there are variants, and just like how we protected high-risk individuals early on, we need to continue doing that.

Clark: Yes, you’re fully vaccinated but many people aren’t. The number one thing is even with those vaccines people can still carry the virus and the variants. (Masking is) still important in our efforts to reduce exposure and to keep everyone safe. 

Let’s talk about a specific situation involving young people: play dates. How do you handle such situations when you’re not sure everyone’s going to be masked?

Bleasdale: Younger people under 12 can’t be vaccinated. When you’re choosing to gather — because socialization is really important — use masks and be outside whenever you can. If you choose to gather with people and be unmasked, you need to know the circumstances.

Clark: Many people are worried someone will judge them for asking. I think if they’re worried about their child’s safety, they have to get comfortable with asking the question directly: Are the children going to be wearing masks?

Or an indirect way could be, “Should my child be prepared to wear a mask or bring one with them?” If they say, “If he or she wants to,” then you know it’s going to be an iffy situation.

Rauvola: Try to be direct, and, of course, it’s going to feel uncomfortable to ask, but I would imagine in a lot of cases people are wondering the same thing, and someone needs to step up and ask that question. The more that parents can communicate with one another in advance of play dates or if schools can help parents do that in some capacity, it becomes more normal and an easier conversation to have. But I think asking the question directly, not just skirting around the issue, would be the way to go.

OK, so sticking with play dates: How do you tell parents you want the kids to wear masks while they’re socializing?

Bleasdale: Hopefully, you’re getting together with people that you’ll feel comfortable to ask them. You can say, “I’m concerned and I want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.” And the best way to be safe is knowing if everyone is vaccinated, if anyone is not vaccinated or vulnerable, or if someone recently returned from vacation.

These are hard conversations because it feels like you’re asking about their personal decisions. But really, this is about being safe, and if you focus on your need to keep you and your family safe, maybe others you want to see (will understand) and want to keep everyone safe and make the right choices.

Rauvola: I think that’s the sort of thing you talk to other parents about, and I think a lot depends on where the play date is going to be. If it’s going to be in your own home, that’s something you can clearly communicate to other parents by saying, “Hey if the kids are going to be over here, they need to be wearing a mask, and I feel same way about your home.”

There needs to be some negotiating from there. Maybe it’s a conversation about where the play date occurs, what are the circumstances under which both kids or all kids could be wearing masks. Ultimately, you need to cater to the people with the highest level of concern. You’ve got to wear masks if everyone else is wanting that.

Clark: Without judgment, they should say that they have chosen to conduct themselves in a certain way and the family, due to concerns about the pandemic, wants to know would it be possible for all the children to wear masks. That way they feel comfortable having their child participate.

Connecting with family and friends over a meal was one of the many traditions put on pause last year. With dinner invitations returning, how do you navigate invites, especially if you don’t feel comfortable dining indoors?

Bleasdale: I’m honest. Most times, if I’m going to gather with my friends, I prefer outside, even if we’re all vaccinated. The contingency plan is if it rains and we can’t dine outside, then we’ll get together next weekend.

Rauvola: Hopefully, you can be straightforward with whoever is inviting you for dinner. If a friend invites you to dinner indoors and you know a place where you’d feel much more comfortable — whether it has a bigger indoor space, lower capacity or a big patio space — suggest that as an alternative. And communicate why you want that and that you do want to see them and want to make it work.

Clark: Just ask. Are masks required? Is this indoors or outdoors?

Interviews have been condensed and edited.

Do you have COVID-19 etiquette questions? Send us an email.

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz (773) 509-5452  [email protected]

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