The battle to slow the spread of the coronavirus enters its third month this week, and health experts are split over how long the pandemic will last.

But health experts and most government officials are unified on three critical strategies: social distancing, reducing crowd size and wearing face masks.

Most Central Texans have witnessed the response to policies put in place to enforce the first two strategies. Grocery stores, banks and other public buildings now feature marked-off areas designating proper social distancing for customers. Restaurants have blocked off or removed tables in an effort to reduce overall restaurant capacity to the state-mandated 25%.

But while masks have been in evidence in most places of business — especially among employees — the wearing of masks by the general public has been hit and miss.

It’s not uncommon to walk into a grocery store or large retailer and see 80% of the customers wearing face coverings. Yet, at another store just a few miles away, fewer than a third of the patrons are wearing them.

Granted, neither state nor local government officials have required that members of the general public wear them — though they have strongly suggested it.

And certainly, wearing masks isn’t always convenient or comfortable. They can be hot and scratchy, and they make it difficult to talk and be clearly understood. They also need to be cleaned often, and wearing them can make some people feel self-conscious.

But with all that being said, they do the job they are intended to do — help keep people safe. And more people need to wear them.

According to the Mayo Clinic, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the disease.

There has been some lingering confusion regarding the need to wear them because health experts sent mixed messages in the early days of the pandemic. As Mayo points out, experts didn’t know then how readily people with COVID-19 could spread the disease before they exhibited any symptoms — or that it was possible to have the virus and not show any symptoms at all.

Wearing a cloth mask became essential in keeping these individuals from unknowingly spreading the disease to others — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subsequently endorsed this practice.

Across the state, dental clinics and medical offices were allowed to resume their practices on May 1, and since that time virtually all such facilities have required patients to wear masks when reporting for their appointments.

Barbershops and hair salons have opened their doors, and on Monday, gyms will be allowed to resume operation as well.

All these businesses involve being in close proximity with workers and other patrons — and with the accompanying increase in risk of exposure, the wearing of cloth masks becomes even more necessary and consequential.

Just to be clear, there are two basic kinds of masks — and each has a distinct purpose.

N95 masks are designed to protect the wearer from infection. They are actually a kind of respirator that blocks out 95% of small particles, according to the Mayo Clinic. Like surgical masks, N95 masks are intended to be disposable.

Cloth masks, which the CDC recommends for most individuals, are worn to help protect others in case the wearer has the virus; they do offer modest protection to the wearer. These masks are designed to be resusable and should be washed often.

As more businesses open up, bringing more Central Texans together to eat, shop, watch movies and exercise, it’s important that both the businesses and their customers adhere to public health guidelines issued by the governor.

Businesses must do their part by keeping areas clean and sanitized, minimizing public contact through spacing of waiting and seating areas, and reducing the possibility of spreading illness through the handling of utensils, menus, condiment containers and napkins.

Earlier this month, the governor set up guidelines for restaurants, in particular, strongly urging managers to consider having all employees and contractors wear cloth face coverings (over the nose and mouth). If available, employees and contractors should consider wearing non-medical grade face masks, the governor’s guidelines read.

Customers have a right to expect the safest possible conditions whenever they eat out, shop or exercise in a public facility.

We should expect the businesses we patronize to put the safety of their customers and workers first.

But in return, we must do our part as customers, and that includes cloth face coverings when shopping — particularly in crowded aisles and checkout lines. That obligation isn’t just about our own health and safety — it’s about protecting others as well.

We must all set an example, and do what is right.

That doesn’t mean calling out those who aren’t wearing protective masks or are not properly social distancing while in line.

But we should feel free to tell a store manager or supervisor if we feel that proper steps haven’t been taken to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus.

And we should also feel free to leave an establishment if we believe the necessary health precautions are lacking.

The more careful we are in the company of others, the better chance we have of slowing the virus’ spread — and of getting back to some semblance of normal living, sooner rather than later.

So please let’s wash our hands often, maintain proper social distancing and wear a mask in public whenever the situation dictates.

And when we see each other in the grocery store, at the gym or at a restaurant, let’s try to smile at our neighbors — even though those smiles may be hard to recognize with our masks on.

Certainly we’re in unprecedented, difficult times right now, and it may be hard to remain upbeat amid all the changes that have come into our lives since the virus arrived in our community.

But we must hold onto an important truth:

We’re all in this together.

Just knowing that — and possibly a little prayer — will help us get through this, one day at a time. | 254-501-7543

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