Apologies to William Shakespeare, but these days when we step outside most of us become miniature COVID Hamlets and start to soliloquize: “To mask or not to mask – that is the question.”

It’s not that we’re poetic, it’s that we’re confused. Which is understandable because official messages have been mixed on public mask usage for reasons that are sometimes medical and sometimes psychological.

Most notably, the Centers for Disease Control has changed its tune after months of saying public mask-wearing was unnecessary. This week it began recommending that everybody cover their nose and mouth with a mask or a cloth when near other people, especially in crowded places like grocery stores and public transportation.

This advice is not to protect you. It’s to protect everybody around you.

The CDC does not recommend that we wear medical-quality masks, such as the N95 masks that can keep out viruses. Those must be saved for medical workers and emergency responders. If you own some, donate them unless you’re a front-line worker. The rest of us don’t need them.

The CDC recommendation covers pretty much anything that will impede the flow of our breath from spreading, whether it’s a bandana worn like a bandit in a cowboy movie or a dust mask used by woodworkers.

Following that suggestion, I’m going to start wearing a mask when I head into public spaces. I feel silly doing it but right now feeling silly is the least of our worries.

I have no illusions about masks. They are not magic protection from COVID-19.

In particular, informal masks won’t keep us from inhaling a stray coronavirus, either through the material itself or in air currents that sneak around the edges of the mask.

But that’s OK: We wear masks not to protect ourselves but to protect everybody else.

It has become clear as researchers have studied COVID-19 that a large number of infected people – perhaps as many as half – do not show any symptoms for days yet can be shedding virus all along. (By the way, I love the phrase “shedding virus”; it makes us sound like big, hairy dogs.)

So you or I might be infected right now and not know it. There’s a chance that our every breath carries a virus or two or a thousand in minuscule moisture droplets that can travel a few feet or yards, and which might be inhaled by somebody else or land on a surface that others will touch.

Think of why you see your breath when it’s cold outside. That is the cloud of moisture droplets we all produce with every exhalation or each time we speak (especially if we pop our P’s). Wearing a cloth of some shape or style over our mouth and nose greatly limits the spread of those droplets, especially if we cough or sneeze.

If everybody in a crowd is wearing a mask, it doesn’t matter too much that my mask won’t prevent me from inhaling a stray virus because there won’t be many viruses floating around. It’s not perfect but it’s much better.

So why didn’t the CDC recommend masks earlier?

Partly they feared people would over-react and buy up all the masks that medical workers need.

But there is also a concern that masks provide a false sense of security and end up doing more harm than good.

This is my main concern. I’ve heard second-hand stories of people saying ‘hey, I’m wearing a mask so I can do everything I used to do!’ They stop socially isolating or washing their hands much because they feel more protected than they actually are.

It’s especially problematic because masks are a pain to wear, which means we don’t wear them well. We fiddle with them and pull them down when we want to take a deep breath and we don’t tie the strings tight enough or put the loops around or ears – not to mention that, in my experience, it’s impossible to keep a bandana tied around your head.

The result is that the limited protection that our mask gives the wearer is reduced further.

Nonetheless, as long as we don’t take them off entirely, the most homemade of masks can help other people by limiting the spread of our breaths. The more we can limit the spread of COVID-19, the sooner we can leave our homes again and stop wearing those ridiculous-looking things!

Oh, and by the way – wash the mask after every time you’ve worn it in a crowd, just in case.

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