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The COVID-19 pandemic sure has opened a Pandora’s Box for proper etiquette and behavior in public.

A small thing such as wearing a mask indoors, a diminutive request to help contain the spread the virus, has created tensions and anger despite health care directives and the governor’s mandate to wear one.

Do I wear a mask when in public? Yep. Do I enjoy it? Nope.

Wearing a mask is not always pleasant. They can be hot. They can fog your glasses, muffle your voice and make it hard to breathe when exercising. And, I miss seeing people smile.

But that’s not the point.

I wear it for an acquaintance who died from COVID complications in April. While he was suffering from this cruel virus, one of his last requests was for people to please wear a mask to help protect themselves and others from acquiring this insidious disease that ultimately took his life.

I wear it for a dear friend’s wife who is currently battling cancer and going through chemotherapy. Since undergoing treatment for cancer can suppress the immune system, if she were to acquire the virus, it could be devastating.

I wear it for my parents and my husband. I will do anything in my power to help protect them.

I wear it out of respect for others.

I wear it to help prevent the spread of the disease, thereby helping the economy recover more quickly.

Wearing a mask is a small thing to ask, but the potential benefits of wearing one are huge. If it slows the spread, then I’m all for it.

What to do when encountering one who refuses to wear a mask or social distance

In a June 2 Market Watch article, Meera Jagannathan spoke with Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who studies scientific skepticism and misinformation. Bloomfield said that if a customer at your workplace is flouting the rules, try deferring to an external authority. She suggests explaining that your workplace mandates mask-wearing for everybody. This way, it’s less about attacking them and their specific decision.

Bloomfield advised against engaging with strangers who aren’t wearing masks.

“If you don’t have any power or authority in a situation, people probably aren’t going to react kindly or openly to being policed by others,” Bloomfield told the outlet. “Direct confrontation with people you don’t know is not a good idea.”

Also, someone may not be wearing a mask for reasons you don’t know, such as a disability.

It all boils down to the fact that the only person you have power over is yourself. You do not have control over other people’s choices. When you encounter someone not wearing a mask, try to avoid them. At the very least, maintain the 6-foot social distance rule.

In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on this subject, writer Tony Bravo interviewed Lizzie Post, a relative of the famous etiquette maven Emily Post, and director of the Emily Post Institute. When it comes to masks, Post says she prefers to lead through example by following mask guidelines.

She went on to say, “our brains want to punish or shame people who aren’t following the rules, but that will never get people on your side. The thing you can do is control yourself and do everything you can to protect yourself.”

But, what if you are in a situation where you feel you must say something? Then, try to do it in a way that is not accusatory, and make it clear that it is for the health and safety for the both of you.

For example, “because of the guidelines, and because I want to protect you and me from the spread of the virus, I’m going to maintain my distance and wear a mask. Would you help me by wearing one?” Or, “I live with someone who is very vulnerable to the virus and I am trying to protect them from the spread, would you mind wearing a mask to help me?”

All for one and one for all

I think Beth Teitell, a Boston Globe reporter said it best during a Radio Boston interview discussing a medical anthropologist’s views on mask culture.

“It fosters a sense of faith, a shared or mutual obligation and civic duty. It brings people together when faced with a common threat, and helps them mitigate one of the secondary dangers posed by an epidemic, which is the breakdown of social norms. … When people look out, they want to feel comforted by knowing everybody’s doing their all. That’s why it seems very selfish for people when they sense that people aren’t.”

As West Virginians, we are blessed to live in a place with the friendliest, kindest, most authentic people on Earth. We also have one of the most vulnerable populations to the virus such as the elderly, and those suffering from chronic illnesses including diabetes, heart and lung disease.

Each of us as West Virginians should try to show the courtesy and respect to protect them and each other. When I hear, “I just can’t wear a mask, it’s too uncomfortable,” I think, isn’t it better than getting the virus, or spreading it to someone more susceptible?

For these reasons, let’s mask up, Mountaineers!

Pam Harvit BSRDH MS is a certified international corporate protocol and etiquette consultant and speaks nationally on business and medical etiquette, as well as other related topics. You may request her services or e-mail your questions to pamharvit.com