Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

Now that small respiratory droplets created by human speech have been found to hang out in the air for more than eight minutes, requiring masks in long-term care and any other setting where people congregate seems like a no-brainer. In fact, at the time of my inevitable demise, please slip one onto my face and leave it there. I don’t want to take any chances of spreading COVID-19 to the afterlife.

Speaking of brains, the refusal to wear a mask will be the best diagnostic tool society has ever had for identifying someone without one. So instead of getting angry when the order is defied, maybe we’ll feel compassion and pity. “I see you’re not wearing a mask,” we’ll say kindly to the non-compliant person wheezing all over the supermarket produce. “I’m really sorry about your brain. Can I buy you a juice box? And look! Here’s a piece of cloth with bunnies on it! Wouldn’t it be fun to strap it on your face?” 

As someone who constantly scans people’s features to see if they hate me, I wouldn’t make a very good facility administrator during COVID-19. Are my staff smiling at me? Angry? Mouthing obscenities? If I couldn’t see the expressions behind the masks, I wouldn’t know how to interpret what they’re saying, which would render me interpersonally inert, like someone tripped over the extension cord that powers my psyche. Your mother used to shout, “Look at me when I talk to you!” Now leaders will have to say, “Pull down your mask and say that again.”

Besides the ability to read other people’s faces, knowing how to present your own in a pleasing or persuasive way is another key component of leadership, and wearing a mask will make those skills obsolete as well. That smile you’ve practiced for 20 years, or those teeth you mortgaged your house to brighten, will all be irrelevant now. Actual management skills and effective strategies will have to exceed personal charm and attractiveness, which can be a scary place indeed.

Eventually, masks could achieve many of the same leveling outcomes as school uniforms. In any workplace, there’s pressure to look your best, to obsess about makeup and hair (except in my case) and to spend hours trying to hide every visible sign of aging. In this new world, masks will obscure most visual evidence of age, socio-economic status and position. So why worry about superficial beauty practices if you’re just covering them up all day? You certainly wouldn’t want to go to all that trouble and expense just to impress your own family.

Masks will have another even more immediate and positive benefit. Bad breath will now be cut off at the source, though it may endanger the wearer with a new condition I’m calling halitosis asphyxiation syndrome. But even assuming you don’t pass out from your own toxic exhalations, chronic anxiety will be an unfortunate comorbidity, since you’ll be acutely aware with every horrible breath that pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, diabetes, acid reflect and liver or kidney problems can all be the root cause, perhaps even simultaneously.   

On a more serious note, the ever-wise Atul Gawande, author of “Being Mortal,” has written an excellent New Yorker article that gives a thoughtful rationale for four strategic pillars to get life back to some semblance of normal: hygiene, distancing, screening and of course, masks. If someone refuses to put one on your facility lobby, I strongly suggest you make them read it. Though from my experience, the sort of person who refuses to wear a mask may not meet the vocabulary level or cognition required. 

“Evidence of the benefits of mandatory masks is now overwhelming,” he says, then admits that there’s one major obstacle to success in all our mitigation efforts: culture. “It’s one thing to know what we should be doing; it’s another to do it, rigorously and thoroughly.”

“Culture is the fifth, and arguably the most difficult, pillar of a new combination therapy to stop the coronavirus,” Gawande says. Basically, we need to cultivate the desire among all fellow humans to keep others safe, not just ourselves. “It’s about wanting, among other things, never to be the one to make someone else sick.”

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.