Ana Veciana-Suarez

Mask hysteria spreads amid fears of coronavirus and other illnesses: Opinion

A word about face masks.

If you’ve raced to your local drugstore or browsed the virtual aisles of internet behemoth Amazon, you’ll know that there’s been a run on these thingamajigs. Shelves are empty, stockrooms are waiting and manufacturers can’t keep up with the demand. Most people looking for infection protection come away empty-handed, but this hasn’t stopped them from improvising. Yesterday I saw someone wearing a bandanna over her nose and mouth.

I’m not sure what that was about. A starring role in a Western flick? Plans to hold up the local bank? Most likely it was a form of insurance against inhaling someone else’s germs; specifically, the germ known as coronavirus.

In case you haven’t kept up with news, the respiratory illness COVID-19 is considered a pandemic, one that has spread beyond the initial cases in China, killed thousands and sent stock markets in a free fall. Our natural reaction is to protect ourselves with what we can, namely surgical gloves, disinfectant sprays and face masks. (None are really effective, by the way, but more on that later.) Somehow this mass frenzy reminds me of the panic right before a hurricane, when everyone who should know better than to wait for the last minute suddenly feels the need to stock up on plywood, water and batteries.

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I should’ve seen this mask hysteria coming six weeks ago, when The Hubby and I noticed an army of face mask-wearing passengers at San Francisco Airport. At the time, the virus seemed to be a health problem besetting a faraway country and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had yet to announce that infections in the U.S. were inevitable. So I shrugged the incident off. After all, we were in Birkenstock country, a state that is far too granola-crunching for the rest of us.

Here’s the thing: Wearing a face mask won’t necessarily keep you from contracting COVID-19, or catching a whole lot of other things, for that matter The CDC doesn’t even recommend them for sick people or caregivers of coronavirus patients, explaining that it’s better to keep at last six feet from others, wash your hands consistently and cover your nose and mouth if you cough or sneeze. Of course, you can stay home, too, the most effective tool of all.

The masks don’t work because airborne virus particles can float in around the edges; unless, that is, you’ve got an N95 respirator mask, which is government certified to filter out at least 95% of those microscopic germs. But good luck with getting your grubby little hands on one of those.

What fascinates me about this mask mania, though, what truly puts my mind at ease about these deadly threats, is our unfaltering creativity. Face masks have now become fashion statements, an expression of individuality and, maybe, a way of giving the finger to the mysterious and inescapable forces of nature.

Last week I spent several hours in the spacious lobby of a large health care institution. Most of the front office staff wore masks, but not just any masks. One had a painted-on handlebar moustache, another voluptuous fire engine-red lips. A third was decorated with what looked like flowers, though from a distance — I was intent on keeping six feet of separation! — it could’ve been anything.

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At Paris Fashion Week, designer Marine Serre showcased houndstooth and lace versions of what some may now consider a must-have accessory. Fashion fans also posted masked selfies. And Slate, the online publication, predicted face masks “are poised to become the next major wellness trend” thanks to “our increasingly apocalyptic world.”

Normally, I’d roll my eyes at such pretentiousness but, with age and experience, I’ve come to value a sense of humor. If you’re gonna go down, might as well look good plummeting.

Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at or visit her website Follow @AnaVeciana.

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