People wearing masks collage

In this five-photo collage, people are seen wearing masks in Lancaster city on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. 

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania Department of Health advises members of the public to wear cloth masks when venturing out in public. Businesses operating during the COVID-19 emergency must provide their employees with masks to wear while working, and customers who enter those businesses also must wear masks, according to an order signed April 15 by Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. According to that order, businesses that provide medication, medical supplies or groceries must provide an alternate means of delivering goods to customers who cannot wear masks. This order must be followed even when an area moves from the state’s “red” phase to the less-restrictive “yellow” phase.

You may have come across this phrase so often by now that you’ve become numb to its meaning: “My mask protects you, and your mask protects me.”

But it’s true. And it reminds us that we have a responsibility to protect one another when we venture out of our homes because the novel coronavirus remains a serious threat in our community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t recommend wearing masks early on in this public health crisis. As the CDC explains on its website, its stance changed because recent studies show that “a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms,” and even those who eventually develop symptoms can transmit the virus before those symptoms emerge.

So masks should be worn in any public setting where social distance is “difficult to maintain,” the CDC now says.

Masks aren’t intended to silence us. They aren’t muzzles or tools of tyranny and oppression.

How they came to be politicized is one of the more ludicrous aspects of this very strange time.

President Donald Trump has made a point of refusing to don a mask — though Detroit business journalist Chad Livengood reports that the president will be required to wear one when he visits a ventilator assembly plant in Michigan on Thursday.

Vice President Mike Pence declined to wear a mask when he visited the Mayo Clinic last month — and admitted a week later that he should have adhered to that Minnesota medical facility’s mandatory mask policy.

In Montgomery County on Monday, Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the chair of the board of commissioners, chastised another commissioner for failing to wear a mask or practice social distancing at a weekend event at which he handed out American flags to be placed on veterans’ graves for Memorial Day.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Democrat Arkoosh, a physician with a background in public health, pointed out at a briefing that Republican Commissioner Joe Gale had been in close proximity to older individuals at high risk for COVID-19.

The danger was compounded, Arkoosh said, because both she and Gale had been exposed to COVID-19 by a third commissioner, who has tested positive for the illness.

Gale was indignant: “Enough already with the mask-shaming, the mask-bullying, and creating mask hysteria. ... I was there to honor the dead and their families, not to stage a publicity stunt to show how politically correct I am.”

Wearing a mask during a pandemic has nothing to do with political correctness. It’s a public health practice.

And it’s a courtesy that we extend to others — and one we should want to extend if we’re serious about wanting businesses to reopen safely.

Because here’s the thing: Businesses have a responsibility to require mask-wearing on their premises to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

According to an article published last week in The National Law Review, businesses may turn away individuals who refuse to wear masks as long as they “clearly communicate” their mask policy to customers.

If a customer cannot wear a face mask “due to a legitimate health reason (e.g., a person with a respiratory condition who cannot have their breathing restricted),” a business need not alter its mask policy, the article states, but “should attempt to accommodate that customer in an alternative manner that would continue to protect the store’s employees and other customers while also providing service to the customer.”

So please don’t berate a worker who’s enforcing a business’s mask policy. Don’t demand to speak to the manager and expect special treatment because the policy is at odds with your worldview.

Some people feel uncomfortable wearing masks. But without a COVID-19 vaccine or cure, we'll probably have to become accustomed to mask-wearing.

You may not need a mask when you’re wading into a lake with no one around you — or hiking a trail that you have almost to yourself. But you should have a mask at hand in case other people turn up. You should wear a mask any place where you’re likely to be in the presence of people from outside your household.

This shouldn’t be hard.

Unless you’re a person of color. Then wearing a mask comes with its own set of worries.

In a column published Sunday, Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El wrote of Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner, an African American lawmaker who wore a mask to a big-box store and was stopped by a police officer as he exited the store. The officer asked for the receipt for the items in his cart and said, “You looked like you were up to something.”

Smith-Wade-El said he feels some risk wearing a mask as he travels in public or has “to enter a convenience store late at night.” But he wears one nevertheless.

Wearing a mask “in highly trafficked spaces is not the act of someone submitting under the tyranny of the moment or living in fear,” he noted. “It is someone taking an action — one that costs so little — to protect others who are more vulnerable. It is a quiet, consistent act of solidarity, and we need more of those right now.”

Indeed we do.

Please wear a mask.