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A psychologist weighs in on how to deal with those who refuse to mask

People fall into different camps when it comes to wearing masks in public. If you feel strongly about protecting yourself and others from spreading COVID-19 and other viruses, then you probably feel uncomfortable when you see other people not wearing masks — or wearing them incorrectly — when you’re out and about.

But what do you do?

Does it matter if you’re outdoors with plenty of space between you and the other person or indoors in a crowded space like a supermarket? Does it matter if the non-masker is a stranger? What if they’re a member of your own family or a close friend who refuses to wear a mask for reasons that are meaningful to them?

A psychologist weighs in

“People refuse to wear masks for a variety of reasons,” says Geisinger clinical psychologist Shahida Fareed, PsyD. “If it’s a stranger you’re dealing with, I’d highly recommend not confronting them. Just keep your distance as best you can. A close friend or family member is easier to start a dialogue with. They may not agree with you, but they may decide to wear a mask around you out of respect for your feelings. If they don’t, find ways to socialize virtually. Good friends should be able to work it out.”

Dr. Fareed points out that conversations like these may become more important as the seasons change for a couple of reasons. Cooler weather may lead to a resurgence of the coronavirus, in conjunction with flu season, as more people retreat indoors. Plus, holidays are times when families gather — and this year, keeping family members safe should be top of mind.

Adding holidays in the mix

“Unfortunately, some younger people may be difficult to convince when it comes to wearing a mask,” says Dr. Fareed, “and if they’ve been away at school and they’re coming home for a break, they’re probably the ones who should be masking to protect older family members. Especially since they won’t have the luxury of quarantining for two weeks prior to family get-togethers like Thanksgiving.”

Once the feasting begins, the masks come off anyway. What happens then?

Dr. Fareed suggests that at large family gatherings, if room allows, it’s not a bad idea to seat anyone who’s been out in public at school or at work (or who refuses to wear a mask in public) as far away as possible from more vulnerable family members. “On one hand, protecting Grandma and Grandpa from the virus is extremely important,” she says. “But on the other hand, social isolation is something too many older people suffer from even without a pandemic. So, not getting together isn’t an ideal solution. It’s just important to be extra careful this year while keeping safety in mind.”

Mask etiquette while eating

Then there’s the question of where to put your mask while your eating — a question that comes up when dining in restaurants, too. “Your mask should never be placed on the table while you eat,” explains Dr. Fareed. “You wear it to contain germs, so placing it near food that’s being consumed pretty much defeats its purpose.” Instead, Dr. Fareed suggests you place your mask on your lap beneath your napkin. That way, everyone is protected, and your mask is less likely to fall on the floor and get further contaminated. Following these few simple suggestions can help everyone enjoy the holidays safely.

“And hopefully, the one thing we can all agree on is good hand hygiene,” says Dr. Fareed. “Wash your hands often and especially before meals. That’s good advice even when we’re not dealing with a pandemic.”

Next steps:

The science of saliva: Why wearing a face mask matters
Face masks: Know your options
Dear non-maskers: An open letter from a person with CF

For those who wear masks, dealing with mask naysayers can be challenging.
 

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