The trick is to keep breathing

Hilary got a package of masks in the mail — three of them, hand-sewn and sold through Etsy. I chose the blue one with pink flowers on it; it’s cute, but I can’t say I wore it well. If I’m wearing a mask properly, it fogs up my glasses and makes me want to sneeze. Not a good way to be with allergy season approaching. I’m going to try my best not to sneeze directly into it. Better yet, if I have to sneeze, from pollen or from any other prompt, I’ll just stay home.

Yesterday I took a walk to Newark Avenue to post a check to the insurance company and another to the man who handles recycling for the building. I passed twenty-six people. Every one of them was masked. That included deliverymen, nannies pushing strollers, bicyclists and dog-walkers, and even some children, whose little faces were comprehensively draped, and were mainly forehead. Besides this, Jersey City was going about its day. People had places to be and things to do, and they were doing those things. If I’d passed a neighbor or a familiar shopkeeper on Monmouth St., I’d like to think I’d be able to tell who it was. But to be honest, I’m not sure I would. We may have descended into the kind of mass anonymity that cities sometimes promise, but rarely deliver.

I’ve got enough of an interest in crowd psychology to wonder whether the sympathetic identification that underpins the social contract will deteriorate now that we can’t see each others’ faces. On the street, though, I wasn’t thinking about mask semiotics. I was too busy wondering about mask effectiveness. I doubt it would protect me from a viral cloud, and I didn’t intend to get close enough to anybody to transmit pathogens of my own. No, the mask was there on my face to indicate to my neighbors that I’m taking this seriously; that their struggle is my struggle, and I’m going to do what I can to alleviate their anxiety. The block is nervous. We’ve all seen what the virus can do. Because we know, for sure, that asymptomatic people can spread the sickness, everybody is under suspicion. I don’t want to be the one to accidentally cough upwind and cause fourteen days of worry for some poor passerby.

So the mask has become an essential urban accessory. Out in Brooklyn, Megan has been distributing homemade masks to postmen, shopkeepers, and deliverypeople, along with labels explaining how to wash them properly. She brought a bag to the manager of a local grocery. After shopping for awhile, she returned to the checkout counter and discovered, to her horror, that the store had put them on sale for $6.99 apiece. She took the masks back.

The manager had a hot property on his hands. In the absence of a good transmission model, people are going to cling to whatever flimsy safeguards they think they’ve got. We’ve been waiting for more than a month for a thorough explanation of how the coronavirus spreads, and what we’ve mostly gotten is reiterations and crude refinements of the original idea: this is a respiratory disease, so try your hardest not to get sneezed on. But this raises as many questions as it answers. Is the virus present on the breeze? If I’m downwind from somebody who has it, am I going to get it? Can it come through our home ventilation systems? If I talk to somebody, or run with somebody, or kiss somebody, is that, epidemiologically speaking, all interchangeable activity?

In the absence of official guidance, we’ve applied common-sense answers to these questions. We figure that a person breathing hard, like a jogger, spells more trouble than an ordinary person with her mouth closed. Nobody wants to be caught in crowded indoor space; if there’s a window to be opened, we open it. Not every person who has tested positive knows where she picked up the virus, but many do — they caught it from their relatives, or they got it from their church choir, or they’re healthcare workers confronted with a terrifying caseload. From anecdotal accounts, we’ve cobbled together makeshift transmission models of our own. Like our homemade masks, they’re imperfect, but we’ll use what we’ve got.

At least one amateur investigator has taken it further than that. Jonathan Kay, an editor at Quillette, searched for similarities in every super-spreader story he could find. His conclusions come with caveats: he’s not an epidemiologist or a virologist, pieces in mainstream publications are loaded with journalistic bias, no one model could ever be completely comprehensive, wildly incomplete data, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s clear from his tone that he believes, wholeheartedly, in what he’s arguing — and what he’s arguing is that in super-spreader cases, most of the asymptomatic transmission can be attributed to the exchange of large respiratory droplets generated by singing, shouting, business-networking, praying, and partying hearty. Most of the super-spreader events happened at indoor get-togethers, weddings, funerals, houses of worship, and other places where social participation is meant to be full-throated. It follows from this logic that cities were right to close the concert halls and churches, but they were likely wrong to close parks.

I’d have been terrified to publish something like this. What if I’m incorrect, and I’ve encouraged my municipality to institute a policy that gets people killed? Instinctively, I want to defer to medical professionals. But it’s been more than a month of lockdown, and there’s still no consensus about whether it’s safe to walk around the block. We’ve all been forced to build private protocols, and stick to them as best as we can. I thank Jonathan Kay for having the bravery to explain the rationale behind his. Here’s mine:

  • In case I am an asymptomatic spreader, I will wear a mask outdoors in order to safeguard my neighbors against chance encounters with my respiratory droplets;
  • I will harbor no illusions that the mask I am wearing will protect me, and I’ll act accordingly;
  • I will avoid joggers;
  • I will avoid spending time in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation, and I will open windows whenever I can, even if it’s chilly out;
  • I will stop worrying about the virus reaching me through the mail, and I’ll stop being afraid of delivery packages;
  • That said, I will continue washing my hands vigorously after touching objects from outside of the house;
  • I will stop worrying about polite conversations with neighbors, as long as we’re maintaining at least six feet of distance,
  • I’ll stop worrying about persistent airborne clouds of virus in concentrations sufficient to infect me;
  • I will go outside when the sun is shining, and get back on my bicycle;
  • I will assume that I’ll be a survivor;
  • I will reserve the right to amend or scrap this protocol when I learn more.

That’s it — at least for today.