Every day since Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont, the state’s Department of Public Health has issued an update on the progress of coronavirus cases in the state, tips on social distancing, and guidelines on what’s expected of Vermonters during the crisis. Each of those updates has included this sentence: “Facial coverings are encouraged for essential workers in stores and their customers.”
In fact, right below that statement is a link to the state’s “COVID-19 Health & Safety Tips for Essential Businesses.” The first such tip? Again: “Have workers wear cloth face coverings.”
We raise the issue for two reasons.
The first is because we’re in the midst of a pandemic in which the relevant virus is spread most easily through droplets in the air or on surfaces. The virus molecules may then gain purchase in a new host who either breathes them in or has them reach the soft, moist tissue of their eyes, nose or mouth. That can also occur if they touch something on which the molecules rest, then touch those same mucous-y parts of their body, which is why repeated hand-washing is a also a key.
So that exchange of molecules has two sides. There’s the “I better put something over my nose and mouth so I don’t breathe that stuff in” theory, which experts say really isn’t that effective. But it may be better than nothing if done correctly. Some tests have indicated such use has an effect on transmission. But wearing the masks is primarily to keep your breath from infecting others. it’s the same reason doctors in surgery wear masks — to protect their patients, not themselves.
It’s getting those infected people to wear one that really helps stop the spread. Remember, they may not know they’re contagious because they might not develop symptoms for weeks after coming in contact with the virus.
Thus, the CDC, two weeks ago, began advising that everyone wear masks when out in public. Monday, the N.H. Bureau of Infectious Disease Control followed suit, issuing guidelines that advise the use of masks for: “Essential workers at a grocery store, pharmacy, or other business settings where they cannot maintain at least 6 feet distance between themselves and others.”
Neither the CDC, Vermont nor New Hampshire has gone as far as to mandate workers in close contact with the public wear “cloth coverings,” as they refer to them, to distinguish them from the more-effective masks worn by medical professionals and first responders.
Keene Mayor George Hansel said in an email Wednesday the city’s employees who work with the public have been advised to wear masks, and the city is working to supply that gear. He also advises anyone out in public to wear them. However, he specifically noted “This is not a mandate.”
It should be. And all employers ought to be mandating the same and providing them for their employees in public settings. On the streets, anyone can give a wide berth to someone passing by. In a store or other business, it’s harder to keep your distance, but patient shoppers can still maintain 6 feet of space for much of their visit, but only until they have to interact with employees — receiving goods by hand, exchanging money or paperwork at the register.
Remember, the virus can spread BEFORE those who are contagious know they have it. And workers at a store or business who interact regularly with the public come in close contact with a much higher number of people daily, therefore becoming a key focal point for transmitting the illness. Customers ought to be wearing them, too, of course, and businesses could post signs to that effect, though understandably, they may not want to discourage business at this time.
At a time when disinformation campaigns and political rhetoric are encouraging people to be less cautious “for the economy’s sake,” it’s more important than ever that these pivotal points of contact be made more resistant to contamination.
But remember, too, that wearing a mask, gloves or other protective gear does not mean you’re entirely safe. All the guidelines noted above also contain advice on how to use masks and more, including not touching the outside of them once you’ve been in public and thoroughly washing them between uses. For such guidance, visit https://bit.ly/2xT1aIx