There's now compelling evidence that the United States could meaningfully slow the spread of the coronavirus if all of us, whether healthy or sick, started wearing facemasks in public. As a business leader you can save lives by sending this message to all your employees and modeling it yourself.
Until this week, the official word from the Centers for Disease Control and most research organizations was that masks should only be worn by health care professionals (and supplies should be saved for them). The argument was that lay people didn't know how to wear masks properly, that disposable masks needed to be replaced frequently, and that they are more protection for the people around you than they are for you. That last thing is true, but it's a really good reason to start wearing a mask because none of us can ever know whether or when we might be a coronavirus carrier. Not only does the virus incubate for up to two weeks without causing symptoms, research now tells us that one in four people infected with it never have symptoms at all.
But there's a problem with wearing a facemask, particularly outside of Asia, where it became common practice during the SARS epidemic and where many people still wore them even before Covid-19. That problem is embarrassment. Today, if you wear a mask in public in America, you may worry that people will think you are a) already sick; b) paranoid; or c) paranoid and hoarding masks, which is a very bad thing to do.
You can change that. If you're a business owner or business leader, if you have employees, or a popular blog, if you're a consultant or speaker, or you have a healthy social-media following--or even a lot of friends who listen to your advice--you have the power to save lives by getting the word out that wearing a mask isn't embarrassing or paranoid or a sign of sickness, but simply a very smart thing to do.
1. Encourage (or mandate) your employees to wear masks when away from home.
If yours is an essential business and you have employees out in public doing things like making deliveries or fulfilling other functions, you can and should mandate that they wear masks while they're out there. If you have employees working on-site, you can encourage or mandate that masks be worn at your facility or office. And even if everyone is working remotely, you can get the word out and encourage people to wear masks when they go out, and you can acknowledge people who show up to video meetings with masks on.
(Please make clear that wearing a mask is no substitute for social distancing. Masks only provide partial protection, so staying home and away from other people remains our best weapon against Covid-19.)
2. Tell employees how to make their own masks.
It's absolutely true that there is a bad shortage of masks, both worldwide and in the U.S. Given this shortage, we need to make sure that health care workers are as well supplied with masks and other protective equipment as humanly possible. As techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki succinctly put it, "If they fall ill, we will all be doomed."
So, assuming your employees and friends aren't health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, they may not be able to buy masks, and you may not be able to buy masks for them. But they (and you) can make a homemade mask, which offers some of the protection of a commercially available mask. (Here's a nicer version that takes a tiny bit more sewing skill.) If you use an old dish towel or T-shirt as your material, as many recommend, you'll have the added advantage of being able to wash and re-use your mask. Side-by-side comparisons show that homemade masks range offer at least half as much protection as commercial ones and sometimes much more. They're a whole lot better than nothing. Less effective, but still better than nothing, is simply tying a folded over bandana, scarf, or dish towel over your nose and mouth. All these measures will also help you stay healthy by discouraging you from touching your face.
3. Wear one yourself.
This is a time when leading by example takes on added meaning and importance. There's nothing you can do that will speak louder to your employees, friends, and your circle of influence than if you model the behavior you're advising.
I dream of tuning in to a press conference where everyone--politicians, medical experts, and even President Donald Trump--is wearing his or her own homemade mask. Where celebrities make them, or have their staff make them, and pose on Instagram for a #facemaskselfie.
Until that dream comes true, it's up to all of us to get the word out to as many people as we can.