Caution: Read Manual Before Re-opening! Mask Up!

Saliva droplets ejected by human speech. Courtesy National Institutes of Health.

Any time I see someone struggling to assemble a mechanical gadget, I always ask, with not small pleasure, “Did you read the manual?”

Because no one ever reads the manual. That includes me sometimes.

Almost three months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, I’m asking myself that very question on a daily basis. There’s so much to learn in this new normal and so much we still don’t know —- the manual for COVID-19 hasn’t been written yet.

Take masks, for example.

At the onset of the pandemic in late January, neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the World Health Organization recommended that members of the general population wear surgical masks and respirators to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The guidance was not strictly science based. Both organizations feared hoarding of medical-grade masks to the detriment of front-line doctors, nurses and healthcare workers if they made such a recommendation.

The CDC and the WHO have since reversed their decisions and now recommend that everyone wear a mask in public settings, albeit a homemade cloth mask and not medical grade personal protection equipment, the supply of which has indeed been reduced by hoarders and price gougers as well as the depth of the coronavirus crisis itself.

The point the world’s leading infectious disease experts are making is that masks work for slowing and even stopping the spread of coronavirus. Sorry for the confusion.

To repeat: Masks work.

Unfortunately, a sizeable portion of the United States population, including many folks right here in Shasta County, didn’t get the memo and continue to believe they don’t need to wear a mask in public during the pandemic. For some “anti-maskers” the issue has become so politicized, science or reason can’t reach them.

The good news for the rest of us is the new science on novel coronavirus is in and offers even more compelling evidence that masking up—annoying as it can be at times—is one more tool we can use to beat this thing.

Winning matters.

Coming up this week on A News Café, Dr. Sam Van Kirk of Redding will tell more about one such study, ”Universal Masking is Urgent Need in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” in which computer models predict “Social distancing and masking at both 50 percent and 80-90 percent of the population but no lockdown beyond the end of May results in substantial reduction of infection, with 80-90 percent masking eventually eliminating the disease.”

Those are my italics. Total re-opening of the economy by June 1 if more than half of us wear masks!

A more visual study of just why face masks matter was recently conducted by the National Institutes of Health and concerned the amount of saliva droplets ejected from our mouths during normal speaking.

Test subjects, first unmasked then masked, spoke the words “stay healthy” into a black box. The saliva droplets from their mouths were illuminated by laser beams and photographed with an iPhone 11. The luminescent spray of droplets was smaller than that emitted by a cough or a sneeze and hung in the air longer, up to 8 minutes.

It appears when two people converse face-to-face at close distance, they’re engulfed in an invisible cloud of their own spit. Yuck!

Theoretically, COVID-19 or any other virus could be transmitted by these saliva droplets, via aerosol or surface transmission. The good news is that when test subjects donned a simple cloth face mask, the saliva spray was totally shut down. Snuffed out.

The results were impressive enough to prompt Jeremy Howard, a University of San Francisco data scientist who has been studying coronavirus and mask-wearing, along with 100 other prominent health academics, to write a letter to the nation’s governors, asking that “officials require cloth masks to be worn in all public places, such as stores, transportation systems, and public buildings.”

No doubt many Shasta County residents would object to a mask-wearing ordinance. But that’s what it might take to beat this virus, if not enough people buy into the reality of “my mask keeps you safe, your mask keeps me safe.”

Currently, as far as the general public is concerned, the county is sticking to the state’s rather lukewarm guidance on masks:

“There may be a benefit to reducing asymptomatic transmission and reinforcing physical distancing from the use of face coverings. However, face coverings may increase risk if users reduce their use of strong defenses, such as physical distancing and frequent hand washing, when using face coverings.”

FYI, Shasta County has 3 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 this week, all three asymptomatic, bringing the total so far to 34. Four patients have died from COVID-19.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy to transition to this new normal where all of us are masked up in public. I’ve tried to wear my mask on the dozen or so essential trips I’ve made since the pandemic began. But trips to the pharmacy, the grocery store, Lowe’s and the gas station are relatively easy to manage. I’ve been pleased to see plenty of people, one-third to maybe half, wearing masks in those locations.

But dining in restaurants? Getting a haircut? Going to the gym? Those are completely different ball games when it comes to social distancing and wearing masks.

I got a little taste of what’s ahead last Friday afternoon when we traveled from Whitmore to Redding for the reopening of one of our favorite downtown watering holes, Final Draft Brewing Company.

We parked in front of the joint, and looking at my N95 respirator hanging from the rearview mirror, I figured, what the heck, I’m going to be eating and drinking in a couple of minutes, it’ll be too inconvenient to take the mask on and off, so I’ll just leave it hanging in the car. My girlfriend left hers in the glovebox.

Wrong decision.

There was no line, but FDBC has reduced table space by 50 percent for social distancing purposes, and we had to wait 10 minutes for our table. Only half the tables were occupied, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of the recommended 25 percent occupancy rate I’ve seen referenced in various guidelines. I was surprised to see several large groups of 6, 7, 8 people including kids, or as I refer to them these days, vectors.

No one as far as I could see, not any of the staff, not any of the customers (not us!) was wearing a mask. The patriarch of one large family was giving a lecture on the virtues of American exceptionalism. Wine glasses clinked in agreement. I recalled that one study out of MIT found that saliva droplets from coughs and sneezes can travel 27 feet, approximately the distance between the patriarch and me.

Thank God he didn’t sneeze before our table was ready!

For me, all these studies are just more pages in the ever growing COVID-19 manual. Anyone who tells you “It’s just the flu, bro” is full of crap. Coronavirus has killed 90,000 Americans and is well on its way to 100,000 deaths by the end of the month. Masks work. And here I was, not wearing a mask.

As our incredibly fresh-faced, unmasked waitstaff (another vector!) welcomed us, I imagined luminescent droplets of saliva saturated with COVID-19 raining down upon me, drifting into my eyes, my nose, my mouth, lodging in my upper respiratory tract, incubating and then killing me in a couple of weeks or so.

Not very upbeat.

I mean no disrespect to FDBC. I enjoyed my three crispy fish tacos, and the two strong Haley’s Comets really helped numb my paranoia. But in no way did I feel safe on this essential re-opening beer run. I’ll be back, but with my mask.

I was so unnerved by the experience, when I got home, I consulted the Shasta Ready COVID-19 website to discover what exactly the guidance for face mask usage was for reopening dine-in restaurants in the so-called 2nd phase. Again, these are the state’s guidelines, and as it turns out, this time they’re fairly extensive.

“Face coverings are strongly encouraged for all employees, however, they are required for any employee (e.g., server, manager, busser, food runner, etc.) who must be within six feet of customers. All restaurant workers should minimize the amount of time spent within six feet of guests.”

Required. By. Law. As mentioned, none of our servers wore a mask.

“Physical distancing protocols should be used in any office areas, kitchens, pantries, walk-in freezers, or other high-density, high-traffic employee areas. Face coverings are required where employees cannot maintain physical distancing including in kitchens, storage areas, etc.”

I didn’t visit the kitchen, so I don’t know if staff were masked up. Let’s hope they were.

“Face coverings are strongly recommended when employees are in the vicinity of others. Workers should have face coverings available and wear them when at work, in offices, or in a vehicle during work-related travel with others. Face coverings must not be shared.”

Again, I saw no one wearing a mask at FDBC Friday afternoon.

“Establishments must take reasonable measures, including posting signage in strategic and highly-visible locations, to remind the public that they should use face coverings and practice physical distancing while waiting for service and take-out.”

I can honestly say that if FDBC had posted a sign right out front that said, “Where’s your mask?” I’d have gone back to the car and got mine. But not everybody feels the same way. Apparently, certain customers in Stillwater, Oklahoma threaten to kill business owners who make such demands.

To be sure, I’ll return to FDBC some time soon, with my mask, and just to show you I’m not some liberal know-it-all, I’ll admit it won’t be the same N95 that’s still hanging from my rearview mirror.

Like a lot of locals, I’ve been wearing an industrial N95 left over from the Carr Fire, the one with the yellow plastic outlet valve on it. It turns out that the mask protects me from coronavirus, smoke and sawdust.

But if I happen to be COVID-19 positive—I have no symptoms—I’ve been spewing infectious saliva droplets through that valve on an unsuspecting public at a rate perhaps higher than the aforementioned MIT study for the past two weeks.

I should have read the manual that came with mask. I kept it. The print is kind of small, but I just now checked it.

It’s in there. “Not for use in sterile medical settings.”


Next week: R.V. learns to sew!

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments