Are you wearing a mask this summer? - Katherine Roberts

What is your personal mask policy this summer? The official advice keeps changing, and will probably have changed again by the time you read this, but at the moment masks seem to be compulsory on public transport in England, and also in some shops, cafes and bars should you choose to get a bit closer to people - although you can presumably take yours off to order drinks, devour a quick sandwich and catch up on gossip with the friends you haven't seen since March, or how will anyone ever do what they went to the cafe or pub or shop to do in the first place? And how will you survive a long train journey sitting next to a (masked) stranger? Forget snacks or drinks. Or actual conversation. In fact, why not spend the entire journey staring at covid statistics your phone?

I live in a seaside town and up to now haven't seen many masked people around - let's face it, a mask on the beach would leave you with a serious suntan line. But I have noticed a few older people wearing them while out shopping, and also people sitting on buses with black ones tight across their faces. (Why black? Is that some new government guidance I missed? Or simply because white ones get grubby and therefore look infectious?) I've yet to see anyone under the age of 18 wearing a covid mask, even on public transport, but then most teens have hoodies instead. If they do become this year's hot summer fashion item, then I suspect they'll be for those people who wear raincoats when it's not actually raining. I've been caught raincoat wearing in the sunshine a few times, but masks disturb me, big time. I've been avoiding public transport and 'mask mandatory' shops like the plague... not because I'm afraid of catching something nasty, but because seeing other people wearing masks gives me nightmares.

Maybe it's because you can't see people's expressions? Are they smiling behind that mask, or baring their fangs? Are they muttering to themselves because they've been isolated for so long? Or are they trying to speak to me? And who exactly are they? I have trouble recognising faces at the best of times, so is that young person hunched over there on the bus actually my son, or a complete stranger? If I talk to him, will he pull a knife? After all, criminals sometimes wear balaclavas (extra safety from the virus!), presumably so they won't be recognised on CCTV or later identified by anyone who witnesses them burgling the house on the corner. Facial recognition software to spot terrorists in town? Anti-mask laws? Forget it. We're all potential terrorists now.

I don't really know where my nightmares come from. Perhaps it's because I associate masks with the medical profession and doctors performing operations? I have a horror of waking up on the operating table and seeing a ring of surgical masks bent over me. Of course, those are proper medical masks that might actually be of some help in a viral situation - my dentist has been wearing one for several years now, whenever she drills my teeth. I am scared of dentists and find the whole experience of sitting in a dentist chair traumatic, whether my teeth need drilling or not. So maybe that's it?

Handmaid June wearing a gag in The Handmaid's Tale (Channel 4)

Then there's dystopian fiction, of which I read a lot. Earlier this year, I watched The Handmaid's Tale on TV, and in Season Three the handmaids were gagged with uncannily similar looking masks. This was to silence them and make them more submissive, outwardly a sign of additional respect for their 'calling' but ultimately to control them. That series is enough to give any woman nightmares. The later seasons were written for TV, but I read the original book by Margaret Atwood many years ago and it chilled me at the time, even more so now that I can see a similar scenario rapidly unfolding around me.

Then there's the fetish angle, again with a submissive theme. You can buy kinky-looking leather gags on the internet (apparently - I've no personal experience), possibly cheaper than the disposable masks they were flogging at my local hardware store last week, which seemed over-priced to me. It's all about supply and demand, you see - first you create a demand, and then you get rich supplying the goods. But dare you wear a leather mask on the bus? I'm sure it's only a matter of time before I spot one in the wild.

A mask actually has quite a lot of possibilities as a fashion statement, though most people I've seen so far wearing their own seem to go for the 'Kirstie's Homemade Virus Kit' approach with floral patterns. I'm surprised nobody is selling rainbow ones in aid of the NHS yet... or perhaps they are, and I missed them. And just think of the slogans you could scrawl across yours on your next socially-distanced-and-masked protest march. "BAN THE VIRUS!!!" You wouldn't even need to carry a placard, though shouting through a loudhailer might be a bit difficult. Authors could go for the blurb approach with a positive review of their book, or perhaps a teaser quote from the text. A mask that proclaims: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." might be a conversation opener. Except there can be no such conversation.

The Lone Ranger and Silver

Traditionally, masks and other face coverings were (and still are) worn for disguise. This applies in both fiction and real life. Remember Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to give to the poor? Presumably, the Lone Ranger would have no problem with social distancing, since whenever anyone got too close he'd just leap on his horse and cry "Hi-ho Silver and away!" Then we have comic book superheroes. Spiderman, Catwoman, Batman... and the associated villains, of course (not seen anyone wearing a Spiderman mask out in public yet, except last Halloween on my doorstep, and he was ten). Historically, we have highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, who lay in wait on the road to rob both rich and poor. An unidentified prisoner - believed by Dumas to be the Sun King Louis XIV's twin brother - even had his entire head encased in iron while imprisoned in the Bastille. An old film of The Man in the Iron Mask freaked me out when I watched it as a child, so perhaps that's the source of my masked nightmares?

Various organisations wear face coverings to disguise their identities and intimidate their victims. The Ku Klux Klan famously have pointed white hoods, and one man in America recently used a version of a KKK hood to go shopping in, which I imagine actually provided adequate protection from the virus, yet caused more of an uproar than if he had not worn a covering at all - so take care what message yours is giving out. Slightly less sinister, maybe, we have masked balls and carnivals, where people use elaborate masks like this fabulous Venetian creation, both for ornamentation and to appear mysterious.

Onderkokturk - own work, CC

Why is nobody making jewelled covid masks, complete with feathers and glitter? People might not be so inclined to drop those in the street when they get off the train, and at least they look like faces, even if they wear false smiles. I've lost count of the number of disposable masks I've seen littering the pavements around my town - although I'll sometimes pick up people's litter and drop it in the nearest bin, the thought of someone else's potential virus-breath on a used mask stops me dead at 2m. It's like seeing used tampons in the street, which was a problem in poorer towns behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet days. Surely used masks count as clinical waste? Where are all the public disposal bins? Maybe they're inside the closed public loos?

UPDATE: Seems the comments about those who are hard of hearing having a problem with masks are not isolated. Here is a link to a Devon woman who is making masks with a clear window so you can see people's lips and expressions. (These might help people with mask-phobia, too?)

I'm a writer, so it's my job to observe and try to connect all the dots to make a bigger picture, not judge either way. Wearing a mask might be your choice or not your choice, ditto the type of mask you wear and what you do while you're wearing it, also how you dispose of it (or the potential virus you've breathed all over it) afterwards. But in case you are now feeling a little bit uncomfortable at the seriousness of this post, I'll leave you with this cartoon that someone shared on Facebook and made me first laugh, then wince... poor little mice!

No copyright infringement intended
(please contact us if you object to the use of this image on our blog)

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers, and unicorns do not wear masks. Find out more at


I've just ordered a mask with a pink flamingo pattern in case I need to go into a shop as they are about to be compulsory here (not necessarily with flamingos though). However I've only heen into a shop twice in 3 months -my son (with mask) has been doing our food shopping. My main problem with people wearing masks is that I can't usually hear what they're saying. I first noticed this at the dentist's, and I'm sure I missed some of his instructions for aftercare, though that was partly because I was in such a hurry to get out of there! There's a limit to how many times you can reasonably ask people to repeat things, I find.
Ann Turnbull said…
Our daughter in Singapore sent us some masks early on (it's not at all unusual to see people in masks over there, even before Covid. I think it's considered impolite to be snotty in public.) We are scarcely mingling with other people at all, but I've worn mine (it's black!) just a few times in the post office and newsagent's. It does make me feel a bit more protected, and perhaps makes others feel safer too. We have begun to see more of them around recently.
Cecilia, despite having lost a huge filling, I am not going anywhere near the dentist (or the optician) until I'm in severe pain or can't see! And I get more deaf by the day. Thank goodness for subtitles on TV - wish my husband had them too...
Peter Leyland said…
A good article Katherine. I’m making a plea, however, for hard of hearing people like me, and it’s a real drag, who lip read a lot and who often have to point out that their interlocutors should stand in the light so that that they can see their faces. I mentioned it in the supermarket and to my surprise the masked assistant was very understanding but sometimes it is hard to explain. Thanks for all the mask ideas though.
The pink flamingos sound fun! Dragons next, maybe?

And yes, I'm another one who cannot hear what people are saying when they are wearing a mask. But I didn't think we were supposed to hear? Isn't the whole point of wearing them so that we don't accidentally spray out any virus by speaking to someone? You mean all those people I hear mumbling behind their masks might not be crazy, after all, but trying to say something important? OH.
Peter Leyland said…
Yes, you’re right. Thanks
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for the scary-amusing commentary. We're staying with basic black masks - a la Coco Chanel- for now. But I'm flirting with a Mask of Zorro fashion statement. Waiting for masks to appear on the fashion show circuit, then we weill know they are in!
Interesting comments about masks, thanks. For those with mask phobia or hearing problems, take a look at the link I've just added above - a clear mask is much less intimidating!
Eden Baylee said…
Thanks for the timely post Katherine. It's mandatory in Toronto to wear a mask indoors in public venues, and on public transportation. There is some pushback but the majority of people are complying.

Wearing a mask is an inconvenience, but it's not going to kill anyone AND it can save lives given we cannot know if we are asymptomatic and may spread it to others. The sooner we can reduce the number of cases, the sooner we can resume some normalcy. Thankfully, the cases and deaths are dropping in Canada, but I'm all for staying vigilant.

For those crying about masks being oppressive, anti- freedom, and citing any number of ridiculous conspiracies for why they don't want to wear them -- they should have to change places with healthcare workers for one shift. It would put their small inconvenience in perspective.

Sorry for the rant!

As for masks, I have both cotton re-usable ones and disposables. One is made by friends who are designers so they are funky colours. I also have a friend selling masks for the hearing impaired and those who read lips. I'm going to add the site on our FB page.

Stay well,
misha said…
My mask is bright yellow and I wear it in the supermarket, I don't use public transport otherwise I would wear it there too. The thing is that wearing a mask protects all of us from each other. Even if it only cuts the spread of the virus by 60% which is the figure I've seen quoted, then it is more than worth it.

As for patterned masks, my husband has one in suffragette colours and if anyone can source a dragon one then let me know.
Elizabeth Kay said…
I have just had a delivery of masks I designed myself - the design on them, anyway, which were some of my watercolours. Only now it has occurred to me that we could put our book covers on them! Free advertising?
The same thought had crossed my mind, Elizabeth! Plus a quote from the text (or back cover blurb, review, etc), since it takes the place of our usual speech?

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