The pandemic is hard enough to navigate without the judgment.

By Maggie O'Neill
July 15, 2020
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A few weeks ago, I masked up for a Target run—I hadn't been out of the house in a while, but felt confident in my decision to venture out into public with a face covering. My mother and I were there for less than 20 minutes when an unmasked customer pulled up her cart next to ours, much closer than the six-foot social distancing requirements. We politely pulled our cart away, which apparently bothered the woman: "These two women are acting like I have a disease or something," she said into her phone.

I was shocked. I'm a heath editor, and I've been keeping up with COVID-19 since it was first discovered in December. Since then, it's been made abundantly clear to me that wearing a mask in public places is one of the only and most effective things I can do to keep myself and others safe.

We politely ignored the comment—though it made me feel frustrated and gaslighted—and continued our shopping. But as I ventured out more and more in my home state of Tennessee where I'm currently quarantining with my parents—and where government officials have yet to officially require mask-wearing statewide, instead of just encouraging it—I saw even more people around me in various stores choosing not to wear masks. My family and I are, unfortunately, in the minority as people who decide to wear face coverings.

The experience made me start thinking about the ways in which living through a pandemic has made most of us hyperaware of others’ actions. I've never felt quite as at-the-mercy-of-those-around-me as I have during the past four months when I've worried (sometimes obsessively) about what will happen to me or my parents, who are in their sixties, if I come into contact with someone with COVID-19.

Because of mask-shaming (and shoppers who refuse to wear masks), I've changed my own actions even more: I've noted which stores aren't being diligent about enforcing social distancing suggestions and avoid shopping at them, and I try to stay as far away as possible from those who refuse to cover their faces in public settings.

The situation has made me feel beyond frustrated and even more alone at times—COVID-19 is worrisome enough without mask-shaming factoring into the situation. I wanted to know why people publicly shame others for wearing masks and following other safety precautions, and what rule-abiding citizens can do in situations where they've been shamed for wearing a mask—here's what I found out.

Why are people mask-shaming?

It’s one thing to ignore CDC recommendations to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but calling out people who choose to follow those recommended precautions is totally different, and it's a tricky behavior to fully explain.

First: We have to acknowledge that the decision to wear a mask has become something of a political statement rather than a safety measure—and often, those with certain political beliefs aim to convince others that their side is the correct side. “The topic of wearing a mask has become a heated debate and, in some locations, stores are choosing to turn away those who wear masks,” Shannon O’Neill, PhD (no relation to the author), an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tells Health. “Since mask wearing has become politicized, there are assumptions and stereotypes that correspond with those who choose to wear a mask versus those who don’t.”

There's also a factor of unfamiliarity at play—the uncertainty of the moment we're living in can cause a range of actions, Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. “There’s going to be a range of ways people respond to this,” he explains. “What underlies [people’s behavior] might be a sense of vulnerability,” which can lead to a range of emotions, including fear and anger, Dr. Bea says.

How does mask-shaming affect those who experience it?

Mask-shaming might seem relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things, but it can be jarring and intensify the feelings of helplessness we’re all collectively feeling because of the pandemic. “What was initial isolation due to quarantining at home has now transitioned to isolation in public,” Dr. O’Neill says. This is especially true if mask-wearers are a minority where you’re living. “Being one of very few wearing a mask may result in a number of strong negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and/or depression,” she adds.

Questioning your own actions (like I did after my Target experience) is also a normal response to these judgments. “If the vast majority of your community is not wearing a mask, it is easy to begin second-guessing your choices and becoming concerned with thoughts that you are overreacting,” Dr. O'Neill says. In that case, it’s essential to bring yourself back to the trusted information that led you to wear a mask in the first place—both for your mental and physical health. “It is important to remind yourself of why you are following guidelines and taking precautions. Keep those reasons in mind when you begin to experience doubt or have a desire to conform,” she says.

How to deal with mask-shaming:

Agreeability is probably your best option here. "Go ahead and agree with the attacker. [Say], ‘Yes, I’m going to wear a mask,’” Dr. Bea says. “If we agree with our attacker in that moment, it’s hard for them to keep throwing stones—it kind of puts an end to the argument." If the person doesn't relent, your best option is still to remove yourself from the situation.

After that, there are steps you can take—in addition to reassuring yourself about your own motivations—to gain confidence in your own decision to wear a mask. Dr. Bea has a fairly simple suggestion: Talk to other people who have made the same choice. “Gain some social support,” he suggests. Surrounding yourself with people who have chosen to prioritize their health by keeping a mask handy when they head out in public can reaffirm the facts you know about COVID-19. “Speak with like-minded individuals," Dr. Bea says. "That can endorse your values, your concern for others.”

Lastly, Dr. O’Neill recommends reminding yourself of what you can (and can't) control. If you are one of the few people in your circle wearing a mask, you might start to worry about how those around you are increasing your chances of contracting COVID. But since you can’t control those around you, your best bet is to consider all the ways you can minimize your risk yourself. “Since we can’t control others’ actions, there may be thoughts of hopelessness, helplessness, and depression due to the lack of power within a situation,” she explains. “To manage the natural emotions associated with being around others not following guidelines, prioritize what is in your control. For example, get groceries delivered and run errands at less popular times during the day.”

While I've definitely been discouraged by the lack of mask wearing I've noticed in my community, it hasn't changed my decision to wear a mask every time I leave my house. I had to do what Dr. O'Neill recommended anyone who's been mask shamed do: remind myself of why I've made the choices I've made, and reaffirm my own decisions. I've heard too many doctors explain how quickly this potentially-fatal coronavirus spreads when people don't wear masks to stop wearing one—so I'll keep covering my face to protect myself and others, regardless of how mask-shamers feel about it.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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