Rules of Civility: Wearing Masks

Via Julia B - Floral Mask Bouquet


It is now clear that the way to avoid any spread of the COVID-19 virus that has affected us for months, and that we want to be brought to its knees, is to wear a mask.  Studies throughout the world conclude that mask-wearing is the primary way we can contain the current spread of the virus and, importantly avoid a predicted second and third wave.

Pre-COVID -19, wearing a mask applied primarily to doctors and nurses. But as etiquette always adjusts to the times (and always with respect of others at its core), it now provides rules to guide all of us in this important need to wear masks in public. 

When you wear yours, you show your respect for everyone else as this small piece of cloth prevents you from spreading to others the virus, which you may be carrying without even being aware of it. Likewise, those you pass on the street or in a store who are wearing masks are showing respect for you, protecting you from the possibility they may spread the virus or other germs to you. It’s all a matter of mutual respect.

Wearing a mask is not as constricting as you might think and in the last two months, a whole new range of masks have become available with differing ties so you can pick those that fit you best, feel good, and are fun to look at.  Some prefer those that tie; others like those secured around the ears. As long as the bottom of your nose and your mouth are covered – any style of the mask will do.  Some masks come with easily changed filters, others with removable ventilation. In addition to covering your nose and mouth, it should fit snugly against the side of your face but be loose on the inside so you can breathe easily.  Masks made of cotton have the most breathability.

Masks come in dazzling colors and fabrics that months ago no one even dreamed would be available in this once stark, utilitarian form of personal protective equipment (PPE).  Luxury manufacturers are making them match jewel-like colors in dresses they are selling. Schools are making them as team boosters in proclaiming allegiance with their colors.  Organizations are promoting them with symbols.  Cat, dog, opera lovers, and those sharing affections for various artists can find masks with Labradors, Siamese cats, or Monet paintings adorning them.  The choices are limitless.

What are the rules besides simply wearing them? 

First, when you are in the midst of others keep your mask on.  If you are participating in something athletic, be sure that when you are within six feet of someone else that your mask is in place.  If It makes it difficult for you to breathe on these warm days, stop, take a small break, hydrate, and begin again.  If you are not running or exercising close to others, your mask can be lowered beneath your mouth or around your neck, ready to pull up, when others approach.

Keep it in place when you are talking but while you are eating, the mask can be lowered nearer your neck.  If you feel a cough coming, adjust your mask immediately. You may find it helpful if talking with a mask on to enunciate your words a bit more emphatically or even speak up a little.

What to do if someone near you isn’t wearing a mask

At one point, the rule was to politely ask for the other to put on a mask.  That has changed.  Now the advice is not to linger near someone who is not wearing a mask.  First, you don’t want to take chances.  Second, you don’t want to provoke the other person when it is just as easy to escape!  In a store, don’t walk around and tell people to wear a mask and get upset if they don’t.  It’s not worth the exposure. Many stores now require that customers wear a mask and you can let them enforce.

If an acquaintance or repairperson comes into your home, it is your prerogative to ask them to wear a mask.  A good host makes hand sanitizer available at the door and has some disposable masks there for them to put on if they are coming inside. 

Some may worry that a mask may not let people see that you are friendly and are not avoiding them.  Keep in mind that our eyes are great communicators.  They mirror a smile, even when your lips are not visible. 

Physicians at Johns Hopkins and scientists such Dr. Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA and director of their Center for Global Health, predict that since a mask has been so effective in helping curb the spread of this recent virus, that it will continue being a force for controlling germs of many types in the future. 

There are suggestions now that masks may become de rigeur for people who are out and about but not in good health, as masks are effective in stopping the spread of many germs beyond the coronavirus. Casual observances on the street and in current news magazines indicate that a higher percentage of women take care to wear masks than men, even though statistics from health sources are beginning to show that men are maybe twice as vulnerable to the virus as women. Everyone can take care of wearing a mask and protect us all. 

Our Contributor: Catherine S. Arcure

Catherine is a professional etiquette instructor, certified by the American School of Protocol®. During her many years as a food editor and writer, Catherine not only attracted a large and loyal following but also took every opportunity to educate readers in the social graces. As a director of development for the University of Michigan and other educational and performance-related organizations, she planned and coordinated major social events for groups ranging from 20 to 2000. In addition to cultural and volunteer activities in Manhattan, Catherine enjoys spending time with her twin grandsons, who are among her most avid students. If you have enrollment questions, please contact Catherine at her email at