Masking Problems

May 21, 2020

Photo via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Requiring face masks in public during COVID-19 may be a good public health move, but it may also be putting some people’s health at risk.

Listen to the full episode below or scroll down for the transcript and more information.

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Dan Gorenstein: In late April, an alert popped up on Gabriel Felix’s phone.

Gabriel Felix: It was that moment when I got the text message where I was sitting here. I literally stopped and read it and I was thinking like, “Oh, crap, what am I going to do about this?”

DG: A mandatory order to wear face masks.

Good for public health, thought Gabriel, but could be real bad for his own health. 

From the Annenberg Studio at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs.

In late March, the coronavirus struck the Cambridge Hospital where Gabriel worked outside Boston. 

Overnight, he stopped treating patients for depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder as a psychiatric resident at the hospital.

His new job was on the medicine floor, questioning patients to prep more senior doctors, peering through windows to observe patient symptoms.

The shifts took a toll. 

GF: Some of these patients could crash really quickly. I’m remembering a few patients where you think everything is fine and all of suddent their oxygen requirements go up. And you have to make the call whether this person needs to go down to the ICU and get intubated.

DG: Gabriel paints the picture. 

People sick, people dying, doctors dressing in hazmat-like suits to walk into patient rooms, family members kept out of the hospital. 

GF: Families are worried they can’t see their loved ones. Many times you would just have to tell them that they passed away and they wouldn’t even be able to interact with their family member before, like their last few minutes of life. So it was pretty traumatic.

DG: Gabriel’s world for the last eight weeks has revolved around masks. 

At work. 

GF: There were these mask orders being put in place so that at all times we were wearing masks to limit spread.

DG: In public.

GF: I have to wear a mask and go to the grocery store.

DG: And at home with his two roommates. 

GF: We try to social distance from each other, even within the house. 

DG: If anybody gets the value of wearing masks, it’s Gabriel. 

But the late April text — masks are now mandatory in public — stopped him cold.

GF: That moment when I got the text message where I was sitting here it wasn’t a long time, but it was like five minutes.

DG: For some, the new municipal order may be welcome, for others an inconvenience.

Gabriel says for him, it carries serious consequences. 

GF: I am at risk of losing my life, having a negative experience, being put in jail.

DG: Gabriel says he must think about how he’s perceived. It’s a matter of personal safety. 

GF: When people first see me, they don’t see that I’m a doctor. They just see a 6-foot-3 black man walking down the street. And so for me, I’m always thinking when I’m going anywhere, “How am I being perceived?” Am I being perceived as aggressive because I’m not smiling enough? Or am I walking too fast? Do I look suspicious? Oh, I’ve never seen you around here. What are you doing here? Do you live here? These are all the types of things that can happen to any person of color, really, but particularly black people.

DG: In those first few seconds after he saw the text, Gabriel’s mind buzzed.  

He thought of another black doctor wearing a mask; could something like what happened to Dr. Armen Henderson happen to him? 

GF: Dr. Armen Henderson in Miami who was basically handcuffed in front of his house while he was putting supplies to test people for coronavirus in his community.

Henderson interview: He was inches from my face, yelling that I should call him sergeant, I should call him sir. And with no mask on, no gloves on. I could feel his saliva on my lips. It was just a crazy encounter.

GF: Just seeing the interaction, it just seems like another thing that can serve as a way to have me be put in danger on my day-to-day business and life.

DG: I was reading an article from TIME, and it quoted a 24-year-old man who works at a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hospital. And he said, quote, “The image of a black man, especially a tall, dark skinned black man with a bandana on his face, I just feel like the racial biases that will pop into people’s heads will be something that could very well be the end of my life.”

GF: I think that nails it right on the head, honestly. It’s like a constant assault on your very being for things that aren’t even within your control. People of color are always having to deal with this loss of control.

DG: This new mask order has forced Gabriel to be more vigilant than before.

Home after a long shift, he was hungry. But before he walked to a Nepalese place a few blocks away, he stood in his room.

GF: Should I put a mask on or should I not? My other mask is dirty, so I can’t wear the the light green one that I have. Do I want to wear the dark orange one with a black in it? Is that a little bit too dark? Should I wear it when I get to the store or should I wear all the way on the walk there?

Gabriel’s face masks

DG: Gabriel took the orange mask, but tucked it into his pocket ready to put on once he arrived.

GF: It’s a quick walk. Hopefully nothing happens. You kind of take that risk. And nothing did happen at the time. But it’s planning just to go get takeout.

DG: Thinking about masks, wearing masks, not wearing masks — it all reinforced what Gabriel has known. 

GF: A pandemic isn’t stopping racism like it’s not put on hold. I still experience these things in addition to the things that we’re experiencing now during these frightening times. And when these laws, get put out into place, it’s like, OK, how is that going to affect me because I’m already at a disadvantage? This disease is killing us disproportionately. Now I have to worry about these suggestions and how involved is law enforcement that I’ll be enforcing them?

DG: By mid-May, Gabriel had done enough mental gymnastics around masks that he was fed up.

He decided other people should understand the impact of the policy.

Gabriel wrote an op-ed that ran in the health news site STAT. In it, he shared his thoughts and worries about wearing a face mask in public — concerns a few colleagues later confessed they’d never considered before. 

But his message didn’t reach everyone. Gabriel peaked at some of the comments — against the advice of friends.

GF: One person said, “Well, I would imagine a surgical mask is less suspicious then a face covering or bandana, so I don’t see the point of this article.” And in my mind, I didn’t respond, I was like, well, the fact that you said less suspicious is suspicious enough. 

DG: Is there a comment that you read in response to your op-ed in STAT that made you really glad you wrote that piece?

GF: One that I remember that someone sent me was I think this person is actually a fellow employee. And he said, “Thank you for writing about how so many of us feel, but don’t have the courage to say out loud.”

Gabriel in a mask

It was validating to know that other people were feeling the same way. And I was actually really hesitant to write the piece because I didn’t want to come off as a victim, as I think a lot of people don’t or, you know, seeming overly anxious about this thing. It was validating to me to know that other people have those same thoughts.

DG: The New York Times recently reported that New York City police have made 120 arrests and issued about 500 summonses for social distancing violations. 

Black people make up 68% of those. Hispanics make up 24%, and just 7% are white. 

Gabriel says he’s spoken up not to discourage people from wearing masks. His point is much bigger than that. 

I’m Dan Gorenstein, this is Tradeoffs.

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Episode Resources

Episode Credits


Gabriel Felix, MD, psychiatry resident at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts

The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions, Silver Sound Studios and Bacon.

This episode was produced by Victoria Stern, and mixed by Andrew Parrella.

Additional thanks to:

The Tradeoffs Advisory Board and our stellar staff!