“I started double-masking up pretty much the moment the CDC began recommending civilians wear masks back in March,” James, a 34-year-old in South Florida, tells me. “I hate to admit it, because I base a lot of my life around science and hard facts, but I started with two masks on gut instinct and common sense instead of directives, since the info was pretty muddled for a while — and still is, at least from our government.”
But while he’s confident wearing two masks at the same is protecting him from the coronavirus, it definitely hasn’t protected him from the ire of anti-maskers — far from it. Case in point: When checking out at 7-Eleven recently, James says two guys behind him “started piping up that I didn’t need to worry about COVID because I’m young and healthy. I shot back that I didn’t want brain damage or to kill anyone else. That’s when the other rando behind him said loudly that I was being ‘pretty extra.’”
That, of course, is highly debatable. A surgical mask worn over an N95 mask is what many medical professionals and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden prefer, since the surgical mask can “serve as an outer barrier and extend [the N95’s] use by serving as a physical barrier to potentially infectious liquids and droplets,” Sonja Rasmussen, an epidemiologist who once worked on pandemic planning at the CDC, has told USA Today.
Doubling up on masks might be overkill for non-medical workers — or those not running for president — but adherents like James and 31-year-old Ellen in New York City view it as more of an overcorrection. “In the early days, I couldn’t find any info on whether or not cloth masks worked as good as the surgical ones, and with so much misinformation, I didn’t want to chance it,” explains Ellen, who has worn a double-mask ever since COVID tore through NYC. “I know they’re better than nothing, so I figured I’d just double up and be extra-careful, especially because I work around elderly people.”
She says she even emailed the CDC for guidance on whether or not to double-mask it, “but they sent me some generic response,” she laughs. “I don’t know what I was hoping for.”
“I feel I have to put in three times the effort to make up for the lack of it in my city,” James continues. “I live in Miami, a few miles away from what a few months back was called ‘the epicenter of the epicenter of the epicenter.’” As the death count soared, he would only see “maybe one or two people wearing a mask out of 20.” Even after the county “finally instituted a mask mandate when deaths spiked,” he would find signs about the benefits of masks ripped up, and get ridiculed by neighbors for wearing a mask to walk his dog.
“I was hoping that despite my fellow South Floridians’ reputation for self-centeredness, we’d step up to the plate, like we do during hurricane season, but we didn’t,” he tells me. “These days it’s considerably better with maybe a 70/30 split on mask use on a good day, but I still have to use filtration masks because of that 30 to 50 percent.”
“I hate to say it, but I don’t even rely on the CDC right now because they’ve fallen victim to political intrusion time after time during this pandemic,” James adds. As such, his mask routine is constantly changing based on a “patchwork of independent research.” “I’ve got some experience analyzing data and reading scholarly articles, but I’m no expert,” he tells me, “so I’m flying by the seat of my pants with all of this.”
To that end, before the pandemic, James had finally grown out a pretty righteous beard. But he felt the need to sacrifice it after reading a chart saying facial hair prevented KN95 masks from properly sealing to his face. “I lopped it all down to a mustache for my masks to actually create a seal,” he says. “I’d also been using a surgical mask underneath my KN95 until I read recent testimonials from frontline workers [saying] they wear surgical masks over their N95s. So that’s what I’m doing now, while rotating KN95s every 72 hours and throwing out my surgicals after a couple of uses.”
“We don’t exactly know the viral load it takes to get infected and the scientific community’s current consensus is that 72 hours is the longest the bug can survive on paper,” he continues, “but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this all gets thrown out the window in the future and I have to begin a new routine.”
Undeterred by the opinion of anyone who’s not a scientist or named Anthony Fauci, James will continue wearing two masks until the majority of Americans start wearing at least one, or a vaccine emerges. “Major analysis from the top institutions tell us that if we all just masked up, we’d have the pandemic under control in six to 12 weeks. I wish it were enough for us to think outside of ourselves and be careful for the sake of those we don’t know,” James says. “This virus can and will fuck you up, but you can avoid it so easily. Please, just please, wear the damn mask so we can get back to the stuff and people we love sooner.”
“It sucks seeing people I normally get along with and respect and admire shirking their social responsibilities,” he concludes, “so I just batten down the hatches and do what I can.”