Coronavirus: There really are mask deniers out there. I had to spend a weekend with them.
I have a tempered view on most things — the coronavirus pandemic is not one of them. I never expected people to refuse to wear a mask when asked to.
I spent the July 4th weekend in a rental house with mask deniers.
Talk about needing a vacation from my vacation.
After my return, I tried my best not to write about it. I didn’t want to jinx myself into getting sick. Now, seemingly in the clear, I decided I need to say something and give voice to an example of why America is so screwed when it comes to this pandemic.
I’m a 51-year-old white male, registered independent, who tends to have a fairly tempered view on most things. The coronavirus is not one of them. It scares the hell out of me, and it’s ravaging this country physically, economically and psychologically. I wear a mask because it’s the only defense we have right now. I wear it to protect others and myself. I wear it so I can visit my 85-year-old mother, even though she won’t let me in her house. That’s a topic for another article.
I know not everyone agrees with me. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from July found 3 out of 4 Americans support requiring people to wear a mask in public. But I genuinely believed, if push came to shove — in my case if you’re sharing a house with a grand total of six people — we could find a common ground.
Will you really refuse to wear a mask?
Those six people included a married couple from San Francisco, and a woman I’ve been dating for a couple months (yes, we met in the middle of a pandemic). We live in Los Angeles. The other two, a longtime female friend and her new boyfriend, were coming from out of state.
We rented a house in Napa, California. I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry me. The Californians would drive. Yet a few days before we arrived it occurred to me, in the haze of pandemic brain fog, "Wait, these other two are flying on an actual airplane to this shared house with no quarantine and no time to get tested."
I texted the married couple because the wife is closest with our female friend. , “Can you make sure they know we’re freaked out about this?”
She promised she would. She was as concerned as I was.
I was stunned with the text I got in return. The out of state couple told her they will not be wearing masks in the house, they said. They will wear them when cooking food for others and they hoped we understood their position, just as they said they understood ours.
How is this understanding our position? We don’t believe in putting other people at risk but you do? I can almost understand the mask debate at the macro level as a political statement on freedom and personal liberty, but on the personal level with six people, where four people will wear masks and two won't, what happened to majority rule in our (former?) democracy?
I vented. My girlfriend and I took deep breaths. We convinced ourselves once we saw each other face to face, the logic and human decency of wearing masks would win out.
White knuckling through the weekend
They arrived in an Uber from the San Francisco airport. A nearly two-hour drive, during which they proudly relayed to us they didn’t wear masks. I asked them about their flight. They had flown American. Totally full, the airline of no social distancing. They had been to two airports that day with a stop-over in Dallas.
We also learned the new boyfriend gets tested every two weeks because his job is considered high risk. It had been almost two weeks since his last test. Several of his colleagues had tested positive since this nightmare started. “Oh goodie,” I thought, “bring on the wine tasting and let’s hope the president of Belarus is right!”
In the 72 hours to follow, as I followed the Belarusian president’s advice to combat the virus with alcohol; they never wore masks in the house, cooking or not. We heard all sorts of contradictory COVID-19 theories. He, in particular, deemed himself an expert because he’d played golf with an 80-year-old doctor who was hospitalized for the virus but didn’t die.
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The coup de grace was at Friday dinner. We barbecued, but the outdoor table didn’t allow for proper social distancing. So the married couple moved to a side area about 10 feet away. When the new boyfriend walked out of the house and saw how we’d configured the dining experience, he cursed at it and retreated to his bedroom to sleep off his day of wine, setting the tone for the rest of the weekend.
We, the mask wearers, were bullied into submission by those who refused to wear masks. Likewise, the vocal minority of mask deniers in America is winning. They’re a key reason this virus is spreading in much of the country. And they apparently feel no obligation to the social contract binding us together as people and as a country to stop it.
After two weeks of sweating it out, I’m relieved my housemates and I are still healthy, but that’s hardly the point. I got through the early days of lockdown because of my belief that the burgeoning pandemic would bring us together. We’d finally have a common cause to cure our divisiveness and unwillingness to sacrifice for our neighbor or the greater good.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. But at least the mask deniers have accomplished something in this regard — in extending and exacerbating the crisis, they’ve given all of us more time to stop the madness and do what’s right.
Paul Ruehl is a Los Angeles based writer, producer, and entrepreneur.