On April 20, Germany relaxed some of its quarantine measures. Small stores, under 800 m² (8,600 ft²) were allowed to re-open, on the condition that customers kept at least 1.5 meters (5 ft) apart.
The same day, Angela Merkel strongly recommended people start wearing masks in public, though she left it up to the individual German states to decided if and how to implement this measure. In Hamburg, they announced a new Maskenpflicht (mask-wearing requirement) on April 20, which goes into effect April 27, giving people a week to purchase a mask and get used to these measures.
Masks, masks, everywhere
I had acquired reusable cloth masks as soon as the Robert Koch Institute and World Health Organization started recommending them and had already been wearing them to the supermarket for the past week or two. I had every intention of sewing my own too, but since it was already such a struggle to get my store-bought and donated masks to fit my face (I broke four needles and spent several evenings on this), I probably won’t. The demand for masks has, unsurprisingly, skyrocketed, and it seems like hundreds of tailor shops, clothing brands, and people with sewing machines have started selling masks overnight. Yet for every advertisement I see for someone selling masks, I see at least five inquiries on the internet as to where to buy them. I’m getting sick of the internet.
Interestingly, Germans, who were so quick to adopt social distancing measures and to switch to working from home, are putting up quite a fight when it comes to the mask requirement. Some arguments include: if we’re suddenly all required to wear masks, the government should provide them for us for free. Masks are not effective anways, this will do nothing to stop the spread of the virus. And people wearing masks touch their faces more to adjust them.
To this, I would say: we are also required to wear clothes in public, but the government does not provide those for free. If you can’t afford a mask, there are many people donating homemade masks to people who need them, and if you feel bad about receiving charity, see if you can’t find some old clothing or bedsheets you could donate to the sewer. Plus, there are dozens of tutorials for how to make a homemade mask online, even without sewing. And last, Germany is just requiring people to cover their nose and mouth while in public, so if you’re truly opposed to wearing a mask, you can pull a scarf up over your face instead. (I imagine Muslim women are laughing right now).
As to the argument that masks are not effective, scientific studies are in consensus that wearing a mask – any mask – is better than not wearing one. While only medical-grade masks can completely or nearly eliminate the exchange of virus-sized airborne particles between people, homemade cloth masks are better than nothing. Surgical masks filter out 60-80% of particles, and for homemade masks, this can range from 10% (from a single-layer of 400-thread count fabric) to more than 30% (source). Still not ideal, but better than nothing, and if 30% less particles means saving even one life, it will have been worth it.
As to the fact that people wearing masks touch their faces more, it’s probably true. With a massive number of non-standardized masks on the market, there are lots of people wearing ill-fitting masks, which they probably adjust with their hands. The €5 masks I bought at a tailor shop were far too big for me when I first bought them, and hung from my ears down below my chin. It took several hours of amateur hand-sewing to get a decent fit, particularly for the ear straps. Now, I have one mask which is comfortable to wear but tends to slip down after a while, and one mask with a snug fit, but the ear loops are so tight I look like Dumbo. I’ve seen people wandering around in public with their masks around their chins, and I myself am guilty of touching my face to pull up my mask when it slips down. I think this issue can be improved by improving mask design (for me, the best-fitting masks have pleats, though some other people swear by the nose wire), encouraging mask sewers to produce different sizes of masks and give them adjustable ear loops (this can easily be done with a safety pin), and by teaching people to adjust their mask from the ear loops, not the front part.
The beginning of the end
By opening the shops, Germany is showing that they are putting the economy for people. On one hand I get it – small businesses have suffered greatly during this time, not everyone can sell their product or service online, and there’s a lot of pressure to re-open. On the other hand, everyone who’s been to a supermarket in the past two months it’s virtually impossible to keep two meters apart from other people in small spaces, and there are plenty of surfaces lots of people touch which will not be disinfected regularly. This, despite the fact that the number of new infections continues to rise – albeit slowly.
I really wish they would ease up social distancing, though. If we are allowed to go to small shops and come in close contact with strangers, we should also be allowed to meet in small groups outside our immediate household – say, in groups of less than five people.
Breaking the rules
My best friend, who lives alone, is suffering greatly from loneliness. She’s an extrovert, and most of her hobbies involve other people. This is compounded by the fact that she’s now single for the first time since I met her. I’ve been worried about her mental health, so we’ve been flouting the rules and meeting, one-on-one, about once a week. The last time we saw each other, she had a bit of a breakdown and wound up crying for a long time. I know I am flouting the rules by having two contact people instead of one. But honestly, we are best friends and I am worried about her, so I feel justified. It’s been six weeks since all of this got started. I’m not saying we should open up the concert venues and sports stadiums again, but I would like to see my friends again – especially since we’ve all been self-isolating for six weeks now with no symptoms.
But mostly following them
Other than this one exception, I have been following the rules. When I sell plants online, I put them by the door and tell the buyer to ring the doorbell so I can open up when they arrive, and ask them to pay with Paypal, so we can do the transaction without contact. I’ve started wearing a mask in public, not just to the supermarket, but even when I go to water my garden. (I tried wearing it on a bike ride once, but I couldn’t breathe).
I find I do best when I just stay home. It’s been an unusually warm, sunny and dry spring, and the temptation for many apartment dwellers to go out and enjoy the sun is just too great. Many people are out enjoying the parks, though not as many as would be under normal circumstances. I get it – it’s cruel to force urban apartment dwellers in one of the rainiest cities in Europe to stay indoors when the sun finally comes out. But rather than contribute to the problem and get mad at people for not social distancing, I’ve decided to just stay home and enjoy the sun from my window. I go to the supermarket once a week, I usually go outside just once a day to water my plants, and I haven’t had a haircut in months.