How Do You Deal With People Who Aren't Wearing Masks?

Illustration for article titled How Do You Deal With People Who Aren't Wearing Masks?
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Being the cantankerous native New Yorker that I am, I’ve been taken aback by the sense of camaraderie I’ve seen in public during the pandemic. Most prominently, I’m talking about the ubiquitous mask-wearing I’m seeing in my neighborhood, at grocery stores, and on mass transit on the few occasions I’ve had to take it.

Yet, I’ve certainly noticed the occasional bare-faced straggler sneak into places where mask-wearing is mandated. And there’s no shortage of viral videos out there of people around the U.S. who are not only maskless but turn into absolute babies the minute someone calls them on it. Which leaves me wondering: Is there any good way to call someone out for not wearing a mask? What if they are wearing a mask, but they’re doing something obnoxious like pulling it down to talk or leaving their nose uncovered?

There are a few considerations to take into account, personally speaking. I don’t care if someone’s not wearing a mask outdoors, for instance, assuming they’re not standing close to me. Outdoor transmission of the coronavirus seems to be rare and unlikely to fuel the sort of super-spreading events that we’re most worried about.


Inside, though, I’m still wary of confronting maskless people. Public-facing workers in supermarkets have been attacked or even killed for trying to compel people to stick to a mask policy. Being a relatively young man of color, the idea of starting an argument that could potentially escalate to something involving law enforcement just isn’t on my to-do list. Plus, the last thing you want is a maskless person to start yelling, since that would certainly spread more virus if they happen to be infected. There’s also the possibility that the person medically cannot wear a mask, in which case confronting them makes you the jerk.

But on the other hand, should store employees, transit staff, and food service workers bear the brunt of fighting this (inexplicably political) battle? Shouldn’t we all be able to call out dangerous behavior when we see it? Is this a society or not?

We all want to get past this pandemic, and masks are a key part of that. A recent modeling study estimated that universal mask-wearing could vastly drive down the transmission of the virus and prevent future waves of illness, especially in combination with other mitigation efforts—and even 50% mask use could still provide population benefits. A large review of existing research, published this month in the Lancet, found that wearing masks could provide a “large reduction” in the risk of virus transmission.

So I’d love to hear from you: What’s your strategy for dealing with a maskless person near you? Does it change if you’re in a place you can easily leave (like a store) versus a place you can’t (like on a bus)? Does public shaming work? What if it’s a family member or friend? Is there any polite way to correct someone’s bad mask usage (“Please don’t pull your mask down to talk to me”)?


Let’s discuss in the comments. Stay safe out there.

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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I keep my distance from them and my mouth shut. No one appointed me Mask Cop and I choose not to take on the risks and hassles of that job.

Whatever I say will fall on deaf ears because here is no talking cure for assholes...