Ask Dr. Alan: Wearing a Mask Vs Not Wearing It

By Alan Leavens, Ph.D.


I have been fastidious in keeping the virus away, but not everyone seems to care. The other day I stepped outdoors, with my mask on, to take out the trash. My long time neighbor and friend was outside with no mask on. She smiled, began chatting and walking over to me. I put my arm out and asked her to keep her distance. Her expression changed immediately, waving her arms, she turned around and walked away. Was I rude to her?


The ethics of mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic is a difficult dilemma, to say the least. Since the beginning of this pandemic, health professionals have been mixed in their advice. They started by saying that masks were unnecessary and even useless. Then they hedged a bit, admitting they might be helpful, at times. No wonder people are confused. 


The confusion is understandable because this pandemic is unlike anything else. But it’s best to follow the scientific advice from those who study it. The current consensus from WHO and the CDC is that proper masks are indeed helpful in staving off the spread of the virus. Most important, the mask wearer is keeping his/her exhaled droplets from reaching others nearby, protecting the community. Those who choose not to wear a mask are placing the people around them at a health risk. Many communities have made mask-wearing in public mandatory under penalty of law—such as the city of San Miguel de Allende.


Given this information, it seems you were rightfully concerned about your neighbor’s unprotected face coming near you. But there is another side to the coin. Your neighbor clearly has a different opinion and a dialogue may have provided you with an opportunity to enlighten her. Both of you could have learned something from each other by sharing your different opinions instead of getting angry and avoiding the issue.


Those who were convinced that masks are not needed may find it challenging to switch sides. In addition, there is a large swath of the public who simply refuse to comply with any edict forced upon them. Some bristle at the very idea of masks, seeing them as signs of illness or weakness.  Others refuse to believe something that may result in personal discomfort or pain, such as wearing a mask, staying home, or avoiding restaurants, bars, and fitness centers.  People with strong opinions are a force to be reckoned with 


Rather than starting a conversation, your neighbor chose to be outraged by your request and simply walked away to avoid a possible conflict. That’s too bad because now there is a conflict.


But fences can and should be mended, especially with neighbors who live next door. Presenting an olive branch and offering to talk about what happened seems prudent. Make it clear you would like to remain friends, even if you maintain different opinions. It can work as long as you show respect for each other’s position.