Making Masks in America, Southwest Pandemic Panic, and Guns in an Open-Carry State
There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.
—Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”
Every time we leave the house, Death walks among us, one of us, in disguise, so we never really know who or where Death is, though we fear he is near us, coming for us, in the guise of an acquaintance, a friend, a lover; or a family member, colleague, fellow shopper, citizen, immigrant, woman, man, child, law breaker, rich person, poor person, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, young or old. Death could look like anyone, even you or me. Death could enter any house, church, school, or business, invited or uninvited, an intruder, an esteemed guest, a member of the family. Any one of us could be Death to another, without even knowing.
That’s why today, after reading Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” I’ll be making masks for me and my husband.
Poe published “The Masque of the Red Death” in May of 1842, 178 years ago, but never have the events of its plot (people attempting to avoid a dangerous plague and wearing masks in social isolation) felt so current. Sadly, never have the chilling logic of its theme felt so prophetic and terrifyingly relevant—that Death is inevitable and inescapable because even if we attempt to lock ourselves away in our houses and wear masks at any gathering, Death will find us.
Nevertheless, today, like Poe’s characters of 178 years ago, those of us who most want to escape Death go about wearing and making masks and locking ourselves in our houses, to keep Death away from ourselves and our loved ones and to protect our neighbors. I haven’t seen my family in many months, though we all live near each other, because we’re afraid we might infect each other, though we are all without symptoms. I have only left the house to gather supplies like food and cleaning products, and when I’m out of the house I see strangers, some wearing masks and some wearing guns.
Here in Oklahoma, we’re living “The Masque of the Red Death” with guns, since as of November 1, 2019, Oklahoma no longer requires a permit for a person to legally carry a concealed or open firearm in public if that person is twenty-one years of age or older. Adults can carry guns in public, openly or concealed, without a background check or training. So, here in Oklahoma, now that the pandemic has reached the public, we are walking in a land of masked faces and guns.
Perhaps from far away, to a stranger from a not-so-distant past, when we leave our houses we appear like little kids walking our neighborhood streets with masks and guns, playing cops and robbers. If only this were a game in the usual sense of the word, where the good guys and the bad guys were easily recognizable because the robbers wore masks, it would be so simple. What fun we would have—those of us who grew up playing with toy guns and delighting in wearing masks and costumes to hide our faces and transform us into characters. Today, the masks aren’t costumes and the guns aren’t toys and no one is happy or playing. Everyone fears each other and the very air we breathe. In particular, it often seems those who wear masks fear those who wear guns and those who wear guns are annoyed by those who wear masks, perhaps because those who wear masks are a reminder that we all should be afraid, even in middle America, even in small-town Oklahoma, where life is supposed to be safe in the slow lane of the Bible Belt.
Here in the Bible Belt, we used to only cover our faces for parties on Halloween. Now, some of us wear masks every time we leave the house, hiding our mouths and noses, not our eyes, from friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. Masks are a form of disguise but also of protection: sometimes they protect the wearer and sometimes they protect those around us. Wearing a disguise suggests we have something to hide and a reason to hide from others. Many believe the virus is a conspiracy, that it’s just a glorified version of the flu or an exaggeration by a government wanting to steal freedom from its citizens. Those of us who believe the virus is real try to stay at home to save lives, but when we can’t stay at home, the masks come out. The masks make us delirious because it’s hard to breathe in them. Our breath fogs our glasses. Have you ever tried to smile at someone through a mask, or even talk? The words come out garbled, especially now that we have to stand at least six feet apart.
We fear each other’s breath but we also fear showing fear. For a very short while, we were required to wear masks before entering public places, but then employees were threatened for asking customers to socially distance or put on a mask before entering stores and restaurants. Just hours after implementing the face-covering emergency order on May 1, the mayor of my small college town amended the order to “encourage” but not require face masks. The reason for this quick amendment? Employees asking patrons to wear masks were threatened with violence, verbal abuse, and firearms, since some citizens thought that the order about wearing masks was a violation of their constitutional rights and their freedoms as US citizens. These threats occurred only three hours after the order requiring people to wear a mask in crowded public spaces to slow the spread of the virus was first implemented.Employees at McDonalds were shot, another bashed on the head, for telling customers the dining room was closed due to social distancing.
Now, whenever I go to Walmart, I sit in the car, waiting with mask in hand, just watching people enter and leave the building to see how many are wearing masks and how many are wearing guns. Some guns are holstered and others are shoved into back pockets. People are watching each other for various reasons, mostly to see who is wearing masks and who is wearing guns. Typically, those who wear masks don’t carry guns and those who carry guns don’t wear masks. Don’t ask me why. It’s hard to explain. Refusing to wear a mask and carrying a gun is supposed to represent the ultimate freedom. Those who wear a mask are thought to be sensitive or sick or repressive, as if they have something to fear and something to hide. For many who want to simply get on with the business of living, those who wear masks are the ultimate threat, since the mask wearers remind us that the virus is everywhere in the air we breathe, in our breath, that we are all a threat to each other. Ironically, those who wear guns also believe we are all a threat to each other and are claiming to protect themselves and others by carrying the gun, just as those who wear a mask are trying to protect themselves and others by wearing the mask. The difference, though, is that the mask wearers think the threat is the virus while the gun wearers think the threat is the reaction to the virus. Either way, the threat is inside us all, and we are divided on how we think it is best to tackle it—with masks or with guns.
Every time I leave the house, I know I’m a guest at a masquerade where Death walks, an uninvited guest. I fear if I don’t wear a mask someone might get sick from my breath, though I have no symptoms. I also fear if I wear a mask I might make someone angry enough to use their gun on me. Only weeks ago, our government said no one needed to wear masks, that wearing masks could make the threat of the virus worse. At the same time, masks were selling like hotcakes going out of style everywhere they were for sale and the public was asked not to buy masks, to leave them for the health care professionals. My sister, who is a nurse, has to wear the same disposable paper mask for days at the hospital, where each nurse has a plastic bag with her name to store a reused mask that was made to be thrown away after one use. That one disposable mask now must last for days or weeks.
Now, the government is recommending that everyone in the general public wear a mask in public, and that people should make their own masks out of old T-shirts and scraps of material, like I’m doing. Wearing the mask is optional, though, unless your state government makes it a requirement. Here in Oklahoma, one thing has become clear: there are certain things certain people won’t allow the government to tell them to do. One is give up their guns, another is stay home, and yet another is wear a mask.
As much as I fear the virus, I also fear for my husband, who is not white, walking into a gas station with a mask over his face. What if the cashier thinks he’s a criminal and shoots him in “self-defense”? Oklahoma’s Stand Your Ground law states that “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Stand Your Ground laws can quickly become a threat to public safety when almost everyone sees each other as a threat. Only months ago, anyone walking into a bank or restaurant or gas station wearing a mask was thought to be there to rob the place, and anyone who saw a masked adult in a public place feared that person was criminal and ducked to avoid being shot. Now everyone who respects the virus is wearing a mask like a criminal in a state full of guns that are allegedly for protection against criminals.
I’ll never read “The Masque of the Red Death” the same way. In the past, though it has always been one of my favorite short stories, it always felt far away and abstract, like a beautiful gothic painting of a fairytale. Now, it feels like a prophetic warning about a new reality, a new world where we’re living Poe’s allegory. For many of us in the pandemic, the figurative world of Poe has become literal since we’re guests of a masquerade, isolating ourselves from society in hopes of escaping Death.
In trying to keep myself and others safe by making masks, I realize I might also be making us unsafe because if the wrong people see us wearing masks in public they might want to shoot us because in obscuring some of our most human features—our mouths and noses—the masks are making it harder to communicate and making us less human to each other in public spaces where so many are heavily armed, while also reminding all of us that we are threats to each other, that any of us could be Death disguised, or disguising Death inside us, at any place or time.
Scissors, thread, fabric, elastic catching in the old Singer sewing machine I hadn’t used in years: ten yards of elastic makes 25 masks. Five half-yard cuts of fabric is perfect for 25 masks, so I can make some for family and friends, leaving room for error. The cotton thread sings through the machine. Sewing masks for myself and my husband, I wonder if things will ever get back to normal.
What is normal now? What is normal ever again? I’ve come to the realization that there are some faces I might never see again, at least in person. I know that now, but if I don’t make more masks for my loved ones to wear, there may be many more faces I’ll never see, at least not in person. I should have known it long ago. Once, only criminals wore masks to banks, gas stations, grocery stores, and places that might be robbed. Now the law-abiding are wearing masks like criminals, just trying to buy food and supplies to stay alive. Isolated in our own houses, walled off, we remove our masks and let our naked faces breathe.
“Guide to Oklahoma Gun Laws” from “Guns to Carry”: https://www.gunstocarry.com/gun-laws-state/oklahoma-gun-laws/
“Permitless carry is now legal in Oklahoma; here are some places that won’t allow guns” from KOCO 5 News, https://www.koco.com/article/permitless-carry-will-soon-be-legal-in-oklahoma-here-are-some-places-that-wont-allow-guns/29627191#
“Citing Violent Threats Against Business Employees, Oklahoma Mayor Ends Mandatory Face Mask Order,” Time magazine online: https://time.com/5831351/threats-oklahoma-face-masks-stillwater-coronavirus/?fbclid=IwAR1ify1MIu6sXEkdeBALHZavHEDwmH1ngItbDDkgvFEQ0mmy9yQlVWvM79I
“3 McDonald’s Workers Hurt Over Customer Attack Over Coronavirus Limits, Oklahoma Police Say,” NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/3-mcdonald-s-workers-hurt-after-customer-attack-over-coronavirus-n1201681?fbclid=IwAR2Pze6eriZ7WmbvqhRjcKyGpft27sqYFSRt_pJBm0XkGOU8cYhttssGRXU
“What are Oklahoma’s self-defense laws?” Jacqui Ford Law. https://fordlawokc.com/what-counts-as-self-defense/