The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends what many experts have been advising for weeks: Americans should consider wearing two masks. If two people in a room are each wearing a tight-fitting cloth mask over a surgical mask, it can dramatically reduce the potentially infectious aerosols that each person is exposed to, according to a study published by the CDC this week.
I get the point of this recommendation! I talked to several experts for a guide on why to double mask and how to do it correctly. I do not want to get COVID or spread COVID or generally do anything to make COVID think it can keep waltzing around and wreaking havoc. But also: I do not want to double mask. It is objectively ridiculous. We really should not have to.
Before we get to my nuanced, reasonable explanation for why I feel despair at the idea of double masking, I would just like to dwell, for another paragraph, on my emotional reaction to the idea of two masks. TWO. Take yourself out of 2021 for a second, and it sounds like “double condom,” or “bubble boy,” or “don’t do drugs.” Wearing one mask is frankly miserable; a fact we have mostly forgotten because we’ve been grocery shopping and public-transiting and learning and running and dating and fucking (?) in one mask for what feels like one thousand years at this point. (Some people have not forgotten about the misery of the one mask, which they telegraph by wearing the mask on their chins, a place on the body where there are no air holes.)
Nonetheless, our nation’s premier public health celebrity Anthony Fauci has said that wearing two fucking masks is now “common sense.” Which I mean … yes, it is. The pandemic remains unmitigated, and the coronavirus is, for all intents and purposes, airborne, which means we all have potentially infectious air coming into and possibly out of our mouths and noses.
But the actual problem is that we do not have a solid, well-vetted supply of masks that work very well. We still do not have enough N95s for normal people to wear them. If you are wearing masks regularly, you probably bought them on Etsy, or from a fast-fashion retailer, or from a luxury retailer, or maybe you even made them yourself. It does not matter too much where you got it from. The odds are that your current masks do not do a superb job of filtering air. These masks are, to be clear, somewhere between “fine” and “much better than nothing” as evidenced by a very detailed plot of mask performance created by engineers in Colorado. Still, they could be a lot better. Even surgical masks, which can filter air much better, have giant gaps. Let’s be honest, your cloth mask has gaps too, which is why, for double masking to work, the cloth one needs to be tight, preferably with ties behind the head.
Good masks do exist. The technical issue of making a mask has been solved, John Volckens, who runs the mask-testing lab in Colorado, told me when I interviewed him for my guide to double masking. It’s just that it can be hard to find one that is definitely not counterfeit, and also, as experts have been pointing out for pretty much a year now, it takes a little expert fitting to really get the thing to seal against your face. That’s one of the reasons experts advocate for other options for regular people, like cloth masks that have improved fit, filtration, and come with a rating. So in lieu of good, improved masks for all, we are being given instructions on how to jury-rig what we can reliably get our hands on or maybe have a prayer in hell of already having around the house.
To be clear, there are other ways to improve your mask game. “Double masks” is getting a lot of attention because it sounds dramatic and also is relatively easy to do. On the CDC’s new list of ways to improve mask fit, other things to try include wearing a mask with a metal nose bridge and knotting the ear-loops of one three-ply mask behind your head. Yesterday, because I hate double masks, I tried making a mask fitter, which is another way to solve this issue. A mask fitter is a loop thing that sits over a single mask, ties behind your head, and keeps the whole operation pressed against your face. It worked OK; it looked terrible; the whole time I was working on it, my kitchen table was laden with plastic tubing, elastic string, kitchen scissors, and something called “foam wire.” I felt like I was in the scene in Apollo 13 where mission control is trying to direct Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon on how to make a really, really important spaceship part—a filter, it turns out—out of the pile of random crap they have available. (For the record, I didn’t have tubing, string, and something called “foam wire” around my house—I ordered them on Amazon.)
Here’s the thing. We should have custom-made mask fitters readily available to us. We should have government vouchers for beautiful, snug cloth masks with disposable filters (another good solve, experts say). There should be mask dispensers with disposable masks in public places, for when you’re in a pinch, with little cards explaining how to knot them to make them tighter. We shouldn’t be in a pandemic where things are this bad in the first place! (The last president should have worn even one mask gamely; everyone should have enough sick days; I repeat these facts like mantras whenever I am miserable about the current situation.) The fact that you are now being asked to double mask—it is the right, responsible, best thing to do given the circumstances—is also a result of failure, layered on top of failure.