Mask and You Shall Receive

Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Ohio (as in much of the United States). The City of Kent passed an ordinance last week mandating the use of face coverings in all public spaces. Even President Trump recently shifted his rhetoric. He now suggests that wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is not just wise, but patriotic.

We’re also getting closer to the beginning of a new school year. It seems like something that everyone has been looking forward to as something of a “Reset” button. Consequently, the interplay of these two “forces of nature” are introducing a lot of interesting social dynamics.

Masking for a Goal

Cor’s middle school soccer team started hosting “Open Field” practices last week: Two nights a week. On Monday night, I observed the emphasis on scrimmaging (simulating game conditions). And I also observed a lack of concern about keeping six feet of separation between players. (Though I admit this is very difficult to do while scrimmaging). As a result, on Wednesday, we told Cor that he was going to need to wear a face mask — an athletic neck gaiter — if he wanted to continue practicing with his team. So that night, he was the only person on his team who used a mask. He seemed to be the only person on the field who even brought a mask. But I honestly wasn’t even bothered by the lack of mask usage. I was bothered by the way that Cor took some crap from a number of his teammates about the mask.

Middle-school boys are hard-wired to feel insecurity in the face of outlying behavior. They tend to provoke outliers in an attempt to enforce conformity. So that night of practice was hard for Cor. Still, I was proud of the way that he stood his ground.

I encouraged him by saying that if he can keep up with his teammates with some level of restriction to his breathing, it means that he’s that much more in shape than they are. I reminded him that considering others and protecting others is the mark of a good teammate and a good leader. “What if someone came to practice without knowing he was sick, and then the whole team ended up coming down with COVID-19?” I asked. “That would be a season-killer.” I told him I wanted him to persevere with wearing his face mask because it was the socially responsible thing to do. Still, I wished it was easier for him.

Yesterday evening, Cor returned for his third Open Field. He happened to be the first person to arrive (even before the coaches). This also happened to be the first Open Field after the City of Kent passed its mask ordinance. So I was extra-curious to see how other families and the coaches would handle things. Cor wore his mask, as he had on the preceding Wednesday. And when the second player arrived, he stepped out of his father’s truck with an athletic neck gaiter around his neck. He pulled it up over his mouth and nose and jogged out to join Cor on the field. A third player walked up to the field already wearing a face mask.

I think it was pure coincidence that the first three to arrive were the three most committed to the idea of masking. Regardless, the effect was that the next fifteen people to arrive all jogged out to the field with face coverings. Even the first of the coaches to arrive! I observed that some argued about it with their parents in their cars before getting out to practice. Some individuals wrestled with the idea of the face mask, putting it on, taking it off, stuffing it into their pockets, pulling it back out again.

Right around the time that the Open Field was scheduled to start, one of the team’s best players arrived. He and his father argued, rather loudly, about the usage of a mask — but in the end, the middle-schooler loped onto the field with a grin on his face. No mask. Around that same time, the coach told the boys it was time to start running. He also suggested that they may want to remove their masks for the run. So I was curious to see if masks would be reinstated at some point. But I didn’t stick around to find out. I went home to eat dinner and let the team practice.

By the time I got back to pick Cor up, he was the only one using a mask on the field. But the players seemed to be a bit more spaced apart. And when the coaches gathered the players for their end-of-practice instruction and exhortation, the group was less tightly-packed than it had been at the previous practices.

It’s still an awkward social environment. I honestly have a lot of doubts about the feasibility of interscholastic competition this fall, so it may end up being a moot point. Still, I felt like there was some ground gained in the team’s approach to wearing masks.

Masking for Ministry Partnership

This morning, I was invited to a meeting of some Christian leaders focused on reaching out to international students. It was hosted by one of the Staff couples from a ministry focused primarily on Chinese students. I believe the original idea was to meet in their back yard, outdoors. It ended up being a rainy morning, however, so we were forced inside.

I was already wearing my mask when I rang the doorbell. Five other people had already arrived before I did, however, and none of them were wearing face coverings. They were all seated around a dining room table, perhaps two or three feet from each other. When they saw my mask, though, they scooted apart from each other a little bit. They also offered me a seat on the corner where I could pull away from the table even further. I explained that I felt healthy and had no reason to believe I was sick, but my mask was a matter of personal preference.

The group seemed to accept that explanation. The host even shared a story about a recent rash of sickness in his family. His brother and sister-in-law in North Carolina recently contracted COVID-19 on a cross-country move. They had unknowingly infected their father, as well, and he was now in a hospital. But not on a ventilator. So there was clearly some sensitivity to COVID-19. Just not enough to compel them to take precautions in a gathering of loose acquaintances. I was a little bit uncomfortable with the circumstances, but not enough so to excuse myself.

The seventh person to arrive also happened to be wearing a mask, albeit centered on his chin instead of his mouth. The top of the mask rested just beneath the bottom of his mustache. And just after the eighth (and final) person arrived (without a mask), the other mask-wearer explained that he’s been coughing a bit recently. He thought it was from allergies, though, not COVID-19. He just wanted to be cautious.

At that point, the host got up from the table and walked into another room. He returned with a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of disposable face-masks. Three of the others accepted the masks he offered and put them on. So there ended up being five of us who wore masks for the rest of the meeting and three who did not. I only stayed about an hour before I had to leave for other obligations, so I quickly calculated — and accepted — the risks of that environment. But again, it felt awkward. It felt awkward to wear masks in a setting where I never would have thought to do so around this time last year. But it also felt awkward to have people in the room who were not wearing masks or staying six feet apart from each other.

I’m hopeful that we all took some incremental steps towards learning how to interact with others in this strange season of pandemic and a wide spectrum of personal preferences. But it still was clumsy progress.

Masking Why

I choose to believe that we’re all on a learning curve. That we’re all growing in our understanding of COVID-19 and the mitigation strategies employed against further transmission. I think it takes awhile to figure out how to navigate the social- and political tensions that have been woven into our national- and global discourse. So I still want to give a lot of grace to others who have different views from me.

At the same time, a lot of evidence seems to point to the fact that masks are going to be a part of our lives for at least the next few months. We need to embrace some level of insecurity and discomfort for the sake of protecting each other (physically and emotionally). Leadership on this issue is not easy, but it’s essential. And my experiences from the past couple of days have made me hopeful that we’ll be able to figure it out, as we go into this new school year.

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