Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed itself and encouraged Americans to wear masks to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. This week, some mayors have taken things further by mandating mask-wearing in public. As COVID-19 has upended every aspect of American life, masks are fast becoming the faces we show a world where every stranger might be carrying a potential threat. Our doctors are real-life masked superheroes who risk illness and death in their courageous efforts to treat the sick. For the rest of us, a mask, which seemed like overkill a few days ago, now looks like just the right amount. Yet some are still reluctant to wear a mask: Donald Trump, for instance, refused to set a positive example for the nation, insisting, “I am choosing not to do it.” Others have and will follow the president’s lead. Why does this simple precaution inspire such resistance?
In California we are used to wearing masks: Before the menace of the coronavirus, masks were a defense against the smoke and ash of what has become, horrifically, an annual fire season. In the sepia-toned atmosphere that follows a massive fire, the face mask was, literally, a breath of fresh air. Now the mask is a wearable symbol of a world faced with biblical threats, careening between fire and pestilence toward the end of days. Perhaps this unavoidable association with crisis explains some of the aversion. Masks worn as protection against disease in Renaissance-era Europe also symbolized the threat of contagion: The long, downturned bird’s beak of the iconic plague doctor’s mask was thought to filter out toxic vapors, but the dramatic, grotesque mask also transformed the doctor’s body into something sinister and inhuman, a harbinger of suffering and death.
Masks can convey a maverick’s swagger and can carry a whiff of anti-social menace. A mask can suggest a belligerent, go-it-alone attitude, and it also obscures, hinting at a possibility of dissimulation or deception. What, one wonders, lies hidden behind that mask? The mask is a barrier between the wearer and external threats and also, potentially, a disguise, hiding one’s identity from enemies, law enforcement, spies, paparazzi—perhaps a righteous and vengeful God? Those daring few who venture furtively into the city in their masks evoke memories of the outlaws of spaghetti Westerns, bandanas over nose and mouth, on the lam hoping to outwit the hanging posse, just as we shelter in place, hoping to outlast the deadly coronavirus.
Masks and other facial coverings have also long been associated with unknown threats, whether viral or social. The laws of many medieval Italian city-states prohibited facial veils except when worn by mourning widows and banned masks except during carnivals and masquerade balls: Covering the face was suspected to be a way of hiding from the law and evading social constraints. Even if a mask did not successfully disguise one’s identity, it still offered a socially transgressive liberty. Renaissance-era Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione advised the aspiring courtier that “even though he be recognized by all … disguise carries with it a certain freedom and license.” A mask allowed the wearer to escape the constraints of their own persona and social role and become, if not anonymous, at least enigmatic.
The unease associated with a concealed face is not an antique prejudice: Just a few years ago, but in what already feels like a bygone era, many European nations, confronted with the Islamic practice of veiling, prohibited face coverings. In 2014 France successfully argued in the European Court of Human Rights that “the voluntary concealment of the face is … incompatible with the fundamental requirements of living together … [and] the minimum requirement of civility that is necessary for social interaction.” But in the age of the pandemic, a covered face is now a requirement of basic civility. The term for the Islamic veil, hijab, means “barrier” or “partition” in Arabic; Western norms once perceived such a wearable division as anti-social, but today secular as well as sectarian norms demand a barrier between our fragile bodies and a threatening world, or a world our bodies may unwittingly threaten.
But when they cover faces that have provoked fear and aversion, masks still inspire a punitive reaction. Last month in Wood River, Illinois, a police officer confronted two black men wearing masks while shopping at a Walmart, insisting that the law prohibited covering one’s face while in a store—an echo of the medieval prohibition. After the confrontation went, so to speak, viral, the Wood River chief of police, Brad Wells, repudiated the claim in a written statement: “The city does not have such an ordinance prohibiting the wearing of a mask. In fact, I support the wearing of a nonsurgical mask or face covering when in public during the COVID-19 pandemic period.” Sadly, but predictably, the prudent mask, now recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, has already been treated as the pandemic era’s hoodie sweatshirt—an innocent garment, transformed by racial prejudice into a symbol of criminal intent.
There’s another side to masks, of course. Masks obscure, offering anonymity, but a decorated mask can communicate personality even as it safeguards and hides the face. Consider the pricey designer masks such as the Airinum face mask touted by Instagram influencers and celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow. The Airinum comes (or came—of course it’s sold out) in limited edition designer versions and apparently became a regular sight at this year’s various fashion weeks in the early days of what would become the coronavirus pandemic. The fashionable, decorated mask is like a talisman, warding off evil through the power of runes and symbols printed on its surface or like a coat of arms, communicating commitments, values and, perhaps most of all, status. The high-fashion mask can also be read as a sign of contemptible selfishness at a time when doctors, with clearly greater needs, face a shortage. One headline, for instance, read, “Gwyneth Paltrow Face Mask Sells Out Despite Health Advice.” A designer mask seems to betray an attempt to buy one’s way out of a common crisis, yet another barrier separating the rich and famous from the rest of us.
The homemade mask provides an answer. It echoes the embrace of homespun clothing in pre-revolutionary America—an effort to reduce the consumption of imported fabrics controlled and taxed by the tyrannous British. The homespun garment also signaled an egalitarian disdain for status symbols: “Rich and Poor all turn the Spinning Wheel” declared a popular slogan at the time. The homemade pandemic mask is a similar practical response to shortage and, as such, an unambiguous emblem of civic virtue. It reflects the time-honored American values of thrift, self-sufficiency, and ingenuity; it communicates civic responsibility and prudence, self-sufficiency without selfishness. With a government that seems unequal to the threat, citizens must take matters into their own hands, peaceful masked vigilantes who bravely step in to do battle when the authorities have failed.
Of course, these symbolic considerations are trivial compared with the importance of reducing the threat of transmission. Still, as we are forced to abandon the physical intimacy and openness that normally foster trust and community, quiet gestures of solidarity may help us to sustain morale and social connection in the long and lonely weeks to come.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to The Gist.