We Can’t Let Our Guard (Or Our Masks) Down

A montage of people of different races against a rainbow of colorful squares, all wearing face masks.
Image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

Recently, I overheard my father telling my husband about how he had quit his gym membership because they were requiring people to wear a mask during workouts. His list of reasons as to why this was uncomfortable for him was lengthy, and his belief that COVID-19 isn’t actually “that bad” did not help the situation. I hoped there would come a point in his argument when it would all make sense, but it never happened. And I never spoke up.

I don’t know if my father even realizes that I know the whole story now. Maybe I should have said something, but what? What could I even say to such flagrant disregard for safety? How could I logically express my concern to an illogical premise? But staying silent hurt and there was an ache in my chest for the rest of the day. His story stung; it rang with a truth I didn’t want to face. It felt as if my dad had come to me and said, “My comfort is worth more than your life.”

When COVID-19 came on the scene, I was just beginning to emerge from an over 5-year-long stretch of isolation. I was reliant on masks to keep me safe from germs and fragrances. I couldn’t leave my house without emergency medication for scent-based anaphylactic reactions. It was a lot of work to leave the house, but usually worth it.

Then, the world stopped and so did my life.

Suddenly, I was isolated again. Locked in my room, things felt no different than they had been for the past year I spent bed-bound, except for one change. My family members were all home, too. They worked from home or not at all and followed isolation rules as much as possible. It was a fight sometimes to get them to take things quite as seriously as I did, but we managed. In the end, everyone agreed to the rules – to keep me safe.

We avoided other people, creating small “safe” pods of family, sometimes friends, and risking interaction only with medical providers that we had to see. For those who are part of the small pods we make, we depend on them to be just as careful as we are. We have a mutual agreement to protect ourselves so that, in turn, we are protecting all of us. This means being quarantined properly, vaccinated, and wearing proper protective gear, like a mask. By limiting unnecessary exposure to people, getting vaccinated, and not letting your guard (or rather, masks) down, people who are part of pods enable human interaction that people with chronic illnesses like me may not otherwise have. You are saving our lives in more ways than one.

The day I realized that everyone I knew needed to wear a mask at all times, my stomach dropped. Uncomfortable, not fashionable, too lazy, too forgetful, too difficult to breathe, can’t wear make-up…the list of excuses is endless but the outcome is the same. Some people simply will not wear a mask.

There are times when a mask is not a viable protective option, such as meal-times, but many people go around all the time with improperly fitted masks or none at all, no matter how you explain the risk to them. Moreso now, with the introduction of a vaccine, people are choosing to go maskless. But that is how this virus spreads; it sneaks up on people.

I am high-risk. Even now, as the world takes in a communal, maskless, vaccinated breath, people like me remain trapped, curtains drawn closed in our quaint little bubbles, hoping the graph keeps going down.

Not washing your hands, going maskless, interacting with others unsafely, not properly cleaning items like cell phones and TV remotes–these are all choices that could expose me to the virus and increase the likelihood of an outbreak amongst my “safe” social group or directly infect my already sick body. The problem is that what may amount to nothing more than the sniffles for some people is fatal to others, and you won’t know which is which until it’s too late. Ultimately, every time my father goes to the gym and doesn’t wear a mask, he is putting my life at risk. The blunt truth is that these actions could kill me.

But it’s not just me who could get in my father’s crossfire of germs. His bodily fluids can easily contaminate equipment and hang around for hours after he leaves, spreading whatever germs he has to strangers who may use the equipment after him. Further, it’s not just my dad who has been breaking the pod seal. It’s the men at my husband’s job that play maskless poker every lunch break or the cashier that has her mask pulled down below her chin, uncovering her nose. It’s the person who says it’s “just allergies” then proceeds to sneeze and cough uncovered.

But learning about the very real consequences does not guarantee diligence in the protective protocol. Nor has loving me done much to change my father’s opinion on the gym’s mask rules. Even so, I will continue to advocate for taking precautions, because, like a wildfire, this virus is angry and catastrophic. All it takes is one ember – one misplaced droplet of sweat or untimely sneeze. Ignoring the dangers and downplaying how easily it can still be contracted feels like a stab in the back to the chronically ill community that has lost so many to COVID-19. It hurts, because it shows us how undervalued disabled lives can be. You can’t ignore that cold truth. Please wear your mask, because you are saving lives every time you do.

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Bethany Harrup is dedicated to highlighting the trauma and emotional pain that so many chronically ill people experience in their lives - a plight she knows all too well, having been diagnosed with a myriad of disabling, life-long conditions. She works mainly as an educator, using Instagram and her writing talent to make waves.