The evidence is now clear that masking makes a huge difference in infection rates. All we have to do is get everyone to mask properly, and we can drastically reduce the rate of infections and deaths, without closing down the economy. It’s a no-brainer.
So how to get there quickly, without needless conflict?
Leadership. The first step is clear direction and leadership from leaders. We have to establish a new norm here, and quickly, friends! It must start with those in charge - at whatever social level they exist in - fully embracing the need for masking and sending unambiguous signals in support of it. No hemming and hawing, no “maybe this, maybe that”.
Wearing a mask is inconvenient and uncomfortable. It’s not easy in the best of circumstances to move a population to do this. There's no chance of success if leaders don't lead here, from president on down to the smallest local unit.
Consistent modeling is essential. Being an outstanding role model is one of the most effective forms of leadership. No saying one thing and doing another! Every time leaders appear in settings with other people, they should seize the opportunity to be a visible model of commitment to masking. To do otherwise is to enable suffering and death.
Good Signage. Communicate clear, written expectations of masking, at every turn. Institutions need to message everyone who enters - from the moment they enter and followed by frequent reminders within - that masking is the norm. Something clear and simple like “No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service.” Only with clear, visible written signs about masks as a norm is there a chance of dealing with resisters without drama. Staff whose job it is to deal with unmasked people can’t be expected to be effective without good public signage.
Followup and monitoring. What good are signs saying “Masks required” if staff are seen striding around maskless or half-masked? Because this is an awkward, inconvenient new norm, we can't expect things to change just by issuing new policies and directives. We must ensure that monitoring and review take place. It’s a pain, it's true, but we can’t establish new norms quickly without effort.
Clarity and Consistency Will Go Farther than Combativeness
It’s counterproductive to view every case of an unmasked person walking through the door as the ultimate battle. Our goal should be to achieve very high levels of masking in a very short period of time, not to compel every dissident to instantly comply in the process of establishing a new norm.
A big angry confrontation with an unmasked person is a bigger threat to health and life of everyone in the environment than allowing a stubborn non-conformist to walk around quietly unmasked. Hyperventilation, shouting, close contact or shoving are inescapably dangerous for all.
Screeners need to be trained to act in light of that fact. The goal should be persistently communicating a clear expectation, not acting like police empowered to coerce.
Training is Essential
Screeners can easily be trained in a simple series of non-coercive responses to violators:
Start with clear, friendly, matter-of-fact (non-confrontational in tone and body language) statements of masking requirements,
Escalate as needed by repeating the requirements and adding a direct, polite request not to enter without wearing a mask (if possible helpfully offering a location to get one);
Further escalate as needed by: repeating the requirements and informing that entry without masking is a violation of institutional policy; and that you are required to report the incident to management (or by saying that you have to immediately contact management to act on the situation).
Note that the sequence does not end with the screener attempting to physically block a violator. Granted, there are situations where the entry of even one unmasked person is highly dangerous and the above sequence would need to then include physical blockage. In such circumstances screeners need to be trained and well-equipped as security guards or have quick access to such.
But it’s neither realistic nor necessary to expect such high control in most settings. The battle for masking won’t be won by imposing fortified guards at every portal of public interaction or trying to mandate ordinary staff to act like guards. Rather we will win it by posting well-prepared screeners throughout our institutions, trained in communicating a clear expectation with minimal confrontation and no physical tussles.
Some screeners need to be trained to turn up their energy and volume to do this effectively; others need to learn to turn it down so as not to be overbearing. As part of a several hour training program, a conflict style inventory is a highly effective tool in helping individuals recognize their own tendencies and calibrate their responses accordingly. In a workshop of a few hours, individuals can assess themselves, learn a basic sequence for handling difficult situations, and practice what they are learning in roleplays.
Israel, Canada, and some other countries impose stiff fines on people who violate rules on social isolation. They're showing far better results than the US in slowing the virus. But whether we go that route in the end or not, we'll still need screeners and strategies like the above.
Let's get on with this so we can return to something like the life we all long for!