Social distance learning: Readers suggest ways to encourage mask-wearing

I thought I’d asked a simple question. But there are no simple questions anymore. Or, rather, there are no simple answers.

I received hundreds of emails. A few were along the lines of “Live free or die! You can put a mask on my face when you pry it over my cold, dead lips.”


Others said that only an N95 mask is any good and everything else is a waste of time, which strikes me as so two-months-ago. I’m just going by what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, which is that cloth face coverings help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Other readers made the reasonable point that while a mask is necessary in enclosed spaces, joggers, walkers and bikers should not be ostracized for not wearing one.

Fair enough. Exercise is important, especially now. But I still think people should carry a mask outdoors, just in case they wind up in a circumstance where what was once socially distant is suddenly socially near.

But to my question: How to encourage the maskless to mask?

Well, a lot of people said it was better not to bother. As Ruth of St. Louis wrote: “Too many people nowadays are at hair-trigger and might be more likely than usual to react with violence to being asked to change their behavior.”

But there were some recommendations. William of Gaithersburg suggests body language. “You have to make a statement to these people, and that means EXAGGERATE DISTANCE,” he wrote.

When William sees a person without a mask about to invade his space, he makes a show of getting as far away as possible, “not only across the road but well onto the lawn of the opposite house.”

Art, from Alexandria, uses positive reinforcement. “My solution has been to compliment people who do wear a mask,” he wrote. “I say: ‘Thanks for wearing a mask’ and often get a nice reply. When I come in contact with someone not wearing a mask, I turn my back to them until they pass.”

Carl moved to Orange County, Calif., from Brooklyn two years ago. “Living and driving in NYC has taught me to not police others’ personal behavior,” he wrote. “I am not about to confront any individual not wearing a mask.”

So he uses reverse psychology.

“In one grocery store last week a woman was going the wrong way walking toward me. I acted surprised and said out loud, ‘Oh, my God, am I going the wrong way?’

“It got her attention, she apologized and admitted she didn’t realize the aisle was one way and she was wrong.”

Christine of Salt Lake City calls herself a “crabby masker.” Her son has a disability that makes it paramount they wear masks.

“When people come within our social distancing safety net, and they’re not wearing a mask, I stop and politely remind them that this is not solely about them. Wearing a mask and social distancing protects everyone. I say this with my arm draped around my son’s shoulders. The message is very clear.”

Sue of McLean keeps a mask around her neck all day long. Her husband is being treated for cancer. She wrote: “If someone rings our doorbell and they are not wearing a mask, I hand them a small sandwich bag with a homemade mask inside and a note that tells them that they need to wear a mask and keep six feet away from us. The note suggests that they keep the mask and continue to use it as they interact with the public.”

George from Bethesda was among readers who suggested we get T-shirts that say in clear bold text: “Thank you for wearing a mask.”

“It’s a gentle reminder and gets our point across — a lot safer than a confrontation,” George wrote.

Randy of Fairfax County said he won’t shop at a business that doesn’t have a sign requiring masks.

When he’s out on a neighborhood walk, he forces himself to maintain a safe distance from other walkers. “But to soften the appearance of ostracizing others,” Randy wrote, “I say hi and then, ‘Happy social distancing!’ That usually gets a laugh or a smile.”

See you soon

I’m going to take a week off. I’ll be back in this space on June 8. Until then, happy social distancing!

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