Jim Kenyon: Face time with the unmasked

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/16/2020 9:58:52 PM
Modified: 5/16/2020 9:58:50 PM

They’re uncomfortable. They make it difficult to carry on a conversation. They don’t work. They’re overkill.

In my travels around the Upper Valley last week, I heard plenty of reasons why some people don’t wear face coverings in supermarkets, big-box stores, post offices and wherever else 6 feet of separation can be a challenge.

At Market Basket in Claremont, I approached a man and woman without masks in the pasta aisle. “People have a right to do what they want to do,” said the man, who politely declined to give his name. “I think most of this is blown out of proportion anyway.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a face mask when social distancing is difficult to maintain in order to decrease your chances of spreading the coronavirus to someone else.

Nevertheless, face masks have become the latest battleground in our national cultural and political wars.

As Vermont prepares to reopen more businesses on Monday, Gov. Phil Scott, who wears a mask at news conferences, is reluctant to follow border states New York and Massachusetts in making face coverings mandatory for customers.

“A mandate has a potential to create controversy and resistance we might not see if we take an educational approach,” Scott said at Wednesday’s news conference. On Friday, however, the governor said he’d leave it up to each community to decide whether to enact local mask requirements.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu allowed some nonessential indoor businesses, including hair salons and barber shops, to reopen last Monday, provided everyone wears a mask.

Many of us could probably do a better job of wearing masks in public. For me, the drive-thru windows at restaurants come to mind.

Last Wednesday, I spent a few hours on Claremont’s Washington Street. The city’s main shopping area continues to attract shoppers from the Upper Valley and beyond during the pandemic.

In Market Basket’s parking lot, I found 81-year-old Ivy Zerbel, of Sunapee, engaged in a lively discussion with an elderly man about the merits of masks, which they both wore. Just then a couple with two young children came out of the supermarket with uncovered faces.

“When I see someone not wearing a mask, I don’t say anything,” Zerbel said. “I just stay away from them.”

She views mask-wearing as a common courtesy. Her philosophy: “I protect you, you protect me.”

At Walmart, all employees and most customers were wearing masks. Shopping in the cosmetics aisle, Pat McElreavy told me that she usually wears a mask in public, but her supply had run out. She’d given her last masks to a friend undergoing treatments for cancer.

“She needs them more than I did,” McElreavy said.

A few aisles away, a maskless Christy Michaud got right to the point: “They can be annoying,” she said.

Michaud, 32, is a convenience store clerk — a job that requires wearing a mask for long stretches. Sometimes, including during her trip to Walmart, she feels the need to take a break.

In her line of work, customers donning masks aren’t always a welcome sight, especially when she’s working alone late at night. “Are they wearing a mask for their health or are they wearing a mask to rob the store?” she said.

A few blocks from Walmart, two large nylon signs fluttering in the wind advertised “Guns and Ammo.” A sign in the store’s front window stated “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.”

At Black Op Arms, salesman Nick Stone was showing customer Chuck Zimmermann a Glock handgun. Neither man wore a mask. “There’s no real purpose for them,” Stone asserted. “How much good do they do?”

“They’re a feel-good thing,” Zimmermann added.

At Droptine Taxidermy and Archery, a wall-mounted TV was turned to a Fox News channel. Sitting behind the front counter, Cindy Spaulding wasn’t wearing a mask. Most customers who come in don’t either, she said.

“We haven’t had many (coronavirus) cases around here,” she said, referring to Sullivan County.

After we talked for a bit, her husband, Rob, stopped his work in the store’s back room to join our civil conversation about Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Should the president wear a mask when he’s out in public? I asked. “You’re not going to get me to bad-mouth Trump,” Rob Spaulding replied.

A few minutes later, a masked customer entered the shop. When he approached the counter to make his small purchase, Cindy Spaulding pulled out a mask with a camouflage motif that she slipped over her face.

On Thursday, I started on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River. At the Bradford post office, an older man made a quick trip in and out of the small building to pick up his mail.

Why no mask? “I’m retired so my funds are limited,” he said.

He seemed skeptical that wearing a mask would do much good in the long run. The U.S. will have a hard time stopping the spread of the virus until it tightens up the border with Mexico, he told me.

Inside, a bare-faced postal worker waited on customers behind a clear shield anchored to the front counter. Later, at the Hanover post office, I came across the same scenario.

Steve Doherty, a regional spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Boston, told me that employees are provided masks and gloves. “We encourage them to follow CDC guidelines, but it’s not required,” he said.

Could the counter shields influence some postal workers’ thinking about masks? “It may be providing them with a sense of security, false or otherwise,” Doherty said.

Right now, with no mandates in either state, masks often remain a personal choice and a source of controversy. But what not’s controversial is the fact that they’re a public health tool that works better when everyone’s on board.

Even at the drive-thru.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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