By Eve Neumann
Edward R. Murrow High School,
Medical masks, once a rare topic of conversation, have become a raging debate among Americans trying to cope during the coronavirus pandemic.
Medical experts on the coronavirus recommend that Americans use masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, media reports and relentless social media indicate that those who don’t wear masks may have chosen to do so either because of their political views or because they believe they won’t get infected or won’t infect someone else.
New York State regulations say that masks are required when anyone is outside their home and cannot maintain 6 feet of social distance from others. Masks are required inside stores, and on public transportation. However, this is proving tricky. Pete Donohue, the director of press and media relations for the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City, said that transit workers have been physically assaulted by riders who refuse to wear masks.
“And, in some instances, it’s made the job, which can be dangerous, even more dangerous,” he said, “because there’s a certain percentage of people out there who assault transit workers on a regular, you know, because they’re just having a bad day. And now there’s a percentage of people who will physically attack or spit at or threaten transit workers like a bus operator. For example, if he says ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be wearing a mask.’ ”
The risk for contracting COVID-19 from the coronavirus that has been circulating since late last year is very high across the United States. There are no vaccines. In New York, about 419,000 people have contracted it with more than 32,000 deaths. In Schoharie County about three hours north of New York City, there have been 68 cases and no deaths. That could change because new people are moving in and summer people are visiting.
In May, many in the county were resistant to wearing masks. Then the county sent out code enforcement officers, who are part of a task force, to talk to businesses who had not insisted their customers comply. Even in July, some people on the streets don’t wear masks, and others at popular, remote swimming holes, which can get crowded, don’t wear them at all.
Stewart’s Shops, a chain of convenience stores scattered throughout the county, had a lot of customers who did not wear masks.
“The task force mentioned contacting them because Stewart’s felt it was a county issue,” said Carlisle Town Supervisor John H. Leavitt at a Board of Supervisors meeting on May 15 in Schoharie County. “Unless something was put out by the county, they weren’t going to force their stores to enforce the wearing of masks.”
Supermarket owner Geanine Eisel, of the Valley Market in Middleburgh, said that COVID-19 has made people more emotional and tense, and it is often shown in the store. “The extreme mask wearers are the ones harassing the non-mask wearers, and we’ve had to call the police a few times, it’s just extreme on both ends,” she said. “We’re getting verbally attacked every day about something. It’s not always about a mask. I think people’s fears and everything are heightened, and they’re on edge a little bit.”
Schoharie Area Long Term Inc., a non-profit organization that provides grants to local businesses, had offered to help bring masks into Schoharie County, and to help supply masks for those who need them. In mid-May, when there was a shortage of masks and hand sanitizer at businesses, SALT was able to get 6,000 masks and hand sanitizer out to businesses who needed them. They also were able to hand out 1,700 handmade masks.
SALT board chairwoman Anne Morton, said her organization has had a generally positive experience with the project. “We were pleasantly surprised, people were jumping on a bandwagon to get these masks,” she said, “because you don’t know how people are going to react when you have to put a mask on your face to get around.”
On Long Island, Huntington Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci has followed in the lead of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and enforced strict mask and social distancing regulations. As of July 30, Huntington Town has had about 5,162 cases, according to the Suffolk County COVID dashboard.
Masks are required at all town board meetings and in town properties, he said. “The only exception is if you’re in our town pools or if you’re at the beach. You still have to wear the mask to enter the beach. The state authority and our Suffolk County Police have been enforcing these guidelines, making sure that everybody is six feet apart and wearing masks in social situations. We’re also regulating the 50-person capacity in restaurants and bars. In bars, you have to get food with your drinks now.”
Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant, said that for the most part, people follow mask and social distancing regulations. According to Newday’s tracking chart, the village has had about 180 cases of COVID-19 so far. Port Jefferson is in Brookhaven Town, which has had 10,121 COVID-19 cases so far, according to the county COVID-19 dashboard.
“We still do struggle, however, a little bit with visitors who come to Port Jeff, and I have to say a lot of that is sometimes the younger population,” she said. “For some reason they think they are invincible to this, that it’s something that they are not going to have to worry about. . . . We are working really hard here to make sure that we stay really underneath those thresholds that we need to maintain so that we can at least keep our economy open at the level that it’s open currently.”
According to a Stanford University study on mask guidelines, researchers found that if two people wear masks, viral particles can travel about 5 feet from each person — as opposed to when someone doesn’t wear a mask, in which case viral droplets can travel about 30 feet.
Dr. Erica Katz, an emergency medicine physician at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson, refuted a misconception about wearing masks. “You’re not going to trap in carbon dioxide, and you can definitely get oxygen through,” she said. “You’re not going to suffocate in them. We’ve [essential workers] all been wearing them without ill effects for quite a long time. And compared to getting sick with COVID, if they are concerned about breathing, COVID is a lot worse.”
Candace Russell, Claire Wos, and Erin Ye contributed reporting to this story.