Last week, mere weeks after the surgeon general discouraged Americans from buying masks to protect from COVID-19 transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recommending that Americans wear masks to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
It was the type of about-face that has characterized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one that has been marked by mixed messaging, the promotion of dangerous misinformation, and a bumbling incompetence more suggestive of a Benny Hill sketch than a federal government task force. Above all else, it prompted people to flock online by the millions to comb through a now-limited supply of masks — and garment manufacturers have been all too happy to meet demand.
Although the CDC notes that “cloth face coverings [can be] fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost,” there is no shortage of pricey options from brand names all over the internet. You can buy a five-pack double-ply cotton coverings from the LA-based brand Sanctuary for $29.99, available in such patterns as floral, leopard print, and camouflage. You can buy a 3-ply French lace face mask from Maison Modulare for $60, or a Chantilly lace face mask from the bridal designer Katie May for $45 (that “gives everyone ALL THE FEELS,” per its promotional copy — with “all the feels” presumably not including the cough and fever characteristic of the novel coronavirus). For comparison, a box of 50 face masks from CVS costs about $12.49, or about 25 cents per mask, though these were hoarded fairly early on in the pandemic and are virtually impossible to find.
While it’s well established that N95 masks are effective in preventing the transmission of viral particles (and while they are in harrowingly short supply for the health care workers who need them), it’s not entirely clear how much non-medical face masks really help in reducing the transmission of COVID-19. The CDC cited evidence that asymptomatic people with COVID-19 can transmit the disease via viral droplets, which can be emitted via coughing, sneezing, or even speaking; therefore, the idea is that if an asymptomatic person wears a mask, it reduces the chance of such droplets being emitted.
There is by no means consensus on this — nonetheless, the CDC’s guidelines being what they are, the fervor for non-surgical masks has undoubtedly increased, and most of the above cited products are unavailable, having sold out or on back order till mid-April or beyond.
It would be unfair to suggest that the brands making these masks are operating purely out of financial motivation. Most of them are donating at least a portion of proceeds of sales to organizations in need, or masks to essential workers for every individual one sold. Further, the economy being what it is, the production of necessary health equipment is both filling a real demand and undoubtedly helping employees keep jobs.
But it is also worth noting that there is a world of difference between a DIY cloth face covering (which the surgeon general Jerome Adams, who in February advised against the nationwide purchasing of masks, recently demonstrated how to make) and $60 Chantilly lace face masks — and the existence of both is an extension of a class-based hierarchy that has played out since the very start of the crisis.
In areas that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, this dynamic is evident on city streets. In New York City, which is currently the national epicenter of the pandemic, it is not uncommon to see someone wearing a promotional Mets T-shirts or bandana walking feet away from someone else in an in-demand N95 mask, or in an aesthetically pleasing floral face mask clearly crafted at home or purchased on Etsy.
The dire need for affordable PPE has led to people opting for improvised versions of face coverings that appear absurd or comical on the surface, but bely the wearers’ desperation. One viral thread on Twitter shows supermarket customers wearing, among other things, plastic bags, birthday hats, and pantyhose around their nose and mouth.
The images are comical, but they’re also a stark reminder of how poorly thought-out public health policy rollouts may prompt people to attempt to protect themselves in ways that may not even be effective. A few studies have suggested that homemade masks made from garments like T-shirts, while more effective than nothing at filtering out viral particles, are less effective by a considerable margin than surgical masks. Also left unsaid is the fact that the grocery store workers in the photos (essential service workers who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19) do not appear to be wearing PPE in any form at all.
Choose your fighter pic.twitter.com/l4i3FWP0Fl
— zd alienbabe (@tifffanycuh) April 4, 2020
As we approach the month-long mark of quarantine, it’s becoming increasingly apparent how the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the economic stratifications that keep the engine of society humming. Noticeable yet heretofore relatively minor distinctions in class and status — those who have second homes and those who do not; those who can afford to have their groceries delivered and those who cannot — have now assumed tremendous import, to the degree that they determine one’s risk of contracting the virus.
As the wealthy hoover up toilet paper and cleaning products from Sam’s Club shelves on the way to their summer homes, and the middle class send emails and educate their kids while ensconced in their own homes, members of the working class — those who, by and large, work jobs that are classified as essential — work to ensure the safety of the more privileged. They deliver their groceries and medications. They power their electricity. They commute back and forth from crowded subway cars to crowded apartments, putting their own lives and those of their families at risk. And as we are starting to see from the emerging data of who is more likely to get COVID-19 and who is more likely to die from it, they are paying the price for it.
Having a $60 face mask versus a $10 one certainly won’t ensure whether or not you contract the disease — it’s more a silly status symbol than anything else. And the consensus is that you should indeed be wearing one. But as face coverings become more ubiquitous and more and more manufacturers start churning them out for consumers rather than donating them to service workers, it’s worth taking a look at who’s wearing what, and it’s worth asking why. What’s arguably most important: asking why there weren’t enough for health care workers and the general public to begin with.