Johnny Townsend: Coats when it’s cold, masks when there’s virus

I can make my own decision as to when and where to wear a mask.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) In this Aug. 26, 2020, photo, the face on a replica of the Statue of Liberty covers with a protective face mask against the coronavirus. The 1/18th scale replica on Seattle's Alki Beach was erected in 1952 and recast in 2006.

COVID infections are skyrocketing again. Thankfully, there’s only a modest rise in hospitalizations and deaths, but those “modest” numbers would have seemed horrific two years ago. Now we shrug them away. Many “lighter” cases still have people sick and miserable, missing work or infecting coworkers, isolating from family or infecting loved ones.

But since mask mandates have been lifted almost everywhere, most of these people will not wear one. “I don’t have to!” they insist.

No, they don’t. But there’s no law preventing them from choosing to wear one.

When I was a Mormon missionary in Rome, the male missionaries had to wear suit coats whenever we left our apartments, even if it was blazing hot outside. Until May 15 each year, when the mission president deemed it was now warm enough for us to take them off.

He made that decision for us because we, as young men, were too stupid to know if we were hot or cold. The sister missionaries had no such rule. They could wear sweaters, or not, as they saw fit.

Once, I broke a raw egg on my suit jacket — don’t ask — and removed the jacket at church. My local missionary leader ordered me to put the coat back on. It was “inappropriate” for me to remove my suit jacket at church.

Today, while on my commute to work, while I’m interacting with coworkers and customers, I think back on those ridiculous rules and make the obvious connection. When it’s cold, coats are useful. When there’s an uptick in viral infections, masks and distancing are helpful.

Last week, one of my coworkers, still sniffling, told me she was just getting over her second case of COVID this year. She was conscientious, wearing her mask at work … under her nose. Several other coworkers have come down with COVID more than once, even when masking was mandatory. Not a single one of them wore their mask over their nose at work back then and almost none of them wear a mask at all now.

Masks don’t work, they’ll tell me. People are tired of the pandemic, they say.

I ride public transit to and from work, three hours a day, with folks who don’t mask, with folks who do, with folks coughing non-stop, with folks sneezing, with folks eating and drinking and talking loudly on their phones, with mentally ill folks screaming at the top of their lungs.

So far, despite my risk as a frontline worker, my risk riding public transit, my risk interacting with unmasked coworkers, I’ve avoided even one bout of COVID. I tend to believe masking, social distancing and vaccination have helped.

Coworkers who have done one or two but not three of these have almost all come down with COVID.

Perhaps I will, too. Perhaps it’s inevitable.

But I don’t have to get COVID today.

Each infection with COVID carries a 20% chance of developing long COVID. That’s a percentage worth avoiding.

Many of my friends have grown tired of the pandemic, tired of masking and distancing. Over a dozen of them have become infected in the past couple of months.

Every year when winter comes, I put on a jacket when it’s cool. I put on a coat when it’s cold. When it’s warm, I take my jacket off.

When I’m walking outdoors, I take my mask off. When I’m alone at work, I can remove it if I want to. When I’m near other people, I put my mask on.

No one has to give me orders. I am perfectly capable of making this decision on my own.

It’s impossible to avoid all illness, but reducing the number of illnesses we suffer is easily achievable.

If you’re one of those people whose job duties prevent you from wearing a mask, that’s one thing. But if you’re just “uncomfortable,” that’s another. Sure, you can decide that the misery of COVID infection is less for you than the misery of wearing a mask. That the moral responsibility of stopping the spread of a still-mutating virus rests with someone else.

But that’s certainly not my decision.

My mission president used to decide when I wore my coat.

My employer used to decide when I wore my mask.

I make those decisions for myself now. You can, too.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of, among other works, “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?” “Racism by Proxy,” and “Queer Quilting.”