Masked shoppers wait at the end of a long line snaking through the Trader Joe’s parking lot in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

If you plan on going maskless in the Blue Hill area, you might want to avoid Scarlet Kinney and her big stick.

The 79-year-old artist and writer from Surry was at the dump in Blue Hill about a week ago when a man without a mask strode within a few feet of her to discard his recyclables. She told him in no uncertain terms he should wear a mask, to which he answered, “Thanks for the management,” and walked away.

On Facebook, Kinney described her outrage over the incident and said she’d like to use her “very hard” walking stick to “whap” other maskless folks. Although she later explained she was not actually going to hit anyone, her “very satisfying fantasy” reflects the pitch that tensions over wearing masks have risen to in recent days in Maine, causing confrontations at town dumps, on walking paths and on social media.

People wearing masks chide the maskless for being reckless and say that wearing a face covering is the least a person can do as the state’s death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic climbs. People without masks don’t want to be told what to do, don’t believe masks can help or just don’t want to fog their glasses.

RULES KEEP CHANGING

The tensions have been fueled by rapidly changing government recommendations, medical advice and societal etiquette regarding masks. Less than a month ago, U.S. health officials were discouraging healthy people from wearing masks, saying they might do more harm than good, including making people less vigilant about washing hands and keeping a safe distance from others. But then in early April, after studies showed the coronavirus was being spread by people displaying no symptoms, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where 6-foot social distancing is hard to maintain, like a grocery store or pharmacy. If someone who unknowingly has the virus is properly wearing a simple cloth mask over their mouth and nose, it may prevent that person from spreading the virus to others, the CDC says.

Scarlet Kinney of Surry said on Facebook she’d like to “whap” unmasked folks with her walking stick. Photo courtesy of Scarlet Kinney

Masks have become an emotional symbol of the pandemic and stoked a political debate about individual freedoms. In announcing the CDC recommendation, President Trump told the media he personally would not wear one. There have been images in the media of maskless protesters at state capitols, including in Augusta, rallying against government orders about what they can and can’t do during the current crisis.

Because the CDC mask policy is only a recommendation, guidelines about where and when to wear face coverings are being adopted haphazardly around the nation and in Maine. Neither the state of Maine nor the city of Portland has a specific mask order for the general public, with officials deferring to the federal CDC. But on Monday, the Portland City Council will consider requiring workers who come into to close contact with the public to wear face coverings. Last Tuesday, the Brunswick Town Council approved an order that employees of public-serving businesses, including banks, supermarkets and convenience stores, must wear masks. Also last week, Greater Portland Metro began requiring all bus passengers to wear masks or face coverings.

Stores and employers generally have developed their own guidelines on their own timetables as well. Retail chains that began requiring employees to wear masks in the past week or so include Whole Foods, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Shaw’s, Star Market and CVS. Maine-based Hannaford supermarkets will require all store employees to wear face coverings beginning Thursday. Many other businesses do have not mask requirements.

Ann Tracy of Falmouth thinks it’s “crazy” that she and other shoppers are wearing masks inside stores, when not all store workers are.

“I believe if anyone is going to be serving the public, they need a mask, because we don’t know who might be asymptomatic carriers,” said Tracy, 68. “I think it boils down to some people are being more narcissistic than others. So if you care about not infecting someone else, wear one.”

WHO NEEDS THEM?

Mike Violette, a longtime conservative commentator on Maine radio, recently posted a picture on Facebook of himself wearing a mask behind the wheel of his car. The caption read: “People who wear masks while driving are morons.” Violette, who has not worn a mask in supermarkets or public places, does not think they are needed in Maine. He said he might wear one if he lived in a more densely populated area that was a “hot spot” for the virus, like Greater Boston. (There, Mayor Marty Walsh has asked people to wear masks while shopping and going for walks, but he has not ordered them to.)

Mike Violette posted this photo of himself on Facebook “as a joke.” Photo courtesy of Mike Violette

“I just don’t think in places like Portland, or Augusta, Maine, you really need to, if you’re healthy,” said Violette, 59, who has a morning show on WSKW in Augusta. “I’m not a fan of heavy-handed government, but I also understand the medical community wanting to err on the side of caution. I just don’t think we need them here.”

But medical professionals, like Dr. Dora Anne Mills, former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, say we need all the help we can get in fighting this virus, about which we know relatively little and for which there is no vaccine. She said any kind of cloth covering – a bandanna or homemade mask – can stop respiratory droplets from spraying onto somebody when you sneeze, cough or talk or breathe heavily. She said health officials began considering asking people to wear masks once studies found how often the disease has been spread by people showing no symptoms.

Mills, who is chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, said the “jury is still out” on whether there’s a “strong benefit” to wearing a face covering. She and others, including the current Maine CDC director, Dr. Nirav Shah, have cautioned people not to think of masks as a replacement for keeping one’s distance or washing hands often. Wearing a mask may make some people feel safe getting closer to others than they should or touching their faces more, possibly countering any positive effects. Still, Mills said that, if she had a family member working in a retail store right now, she’d want them to wear a mask.

WHERE TO WEAR IT

Many people who wear masks shopping say they don’t feel they need them on walks, where it’s easier to keep a safe distance from others. But Maine open spaces have become fairly crowded at times during this period of social isolation, with joggers, bikers and walkers sometimes sharing the same narrow path.

For Cyndi Pappenfus of Portland, it can be “infuriating” to see people crowding open spaces and not wearing masks. Because of a cystic lung disease and the medication she takes, her immune system has been suppressed. She needs the emotional respite of taking walks outside, but wants to feel safe.

Lisa Nightingale Dominicus feels masks show unity. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It’s very unsettling for me to walk down to a beach and see all these people not wearing masks, not keeping their distance,” said Pappenfus, 39, a tattoo artist. “It’s a scary thing. We all need to keep our sanity, and for me a big part of that is access to the outside.”

Masks have an emotional power for most of us. Before this pandemic, many of us had mainly seen these types of face coverings in movies about bank robbers, kidnappers or other criminals. So to see one’s neighborhood or corner store suddenly filled with mask-wearers can be unsettling, to say the least. Lisa Nightingale Dominicus of South Portland says she thinks wearing a mask in stores and crowded places is a small thing she can do to help slow the virus and does so willingly. Yet the first time she put a mask on, she cried.

“I went into a store and it was so somber, you couldn’t see anybody smiling. It made me cry,” said Dominicus, 57. But as the pandemic has worn on, she’s gotten used to seeing masks everywhere and now takes comfort in the fact that she and so many other people are doing something they believe will help everyone.

“Now when I see masks I feel like I’m seeing a unification of effort. It’s encouraging to me,” she said. “We may be isolated, but we’re not alone.”

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