If six months into the coronavirus pandemic, you are still walking around D.C. without a mask, thinking your exposed nose and mouth won’t draw more than a glance or grimace from those you pass, you might be right. Or you might be a part of graphs and charts that a small, determined group of residents in their 70s and 80s have been compiling for months.
The seven-person team started working in July toward a common goal: Figure out which Washingtonians are still resistant to masks, and find a way to convince them to change.
“If this was all going to be over in a month or two, no one would care,” Scott Price, a 72-year-old resident of Capitol Hill who is part of that group, explains when we talk on a recent morning. “We’re going to have to wear masks for the next year or so.”
He became involved in the issue after he and his wife, during neighborhood walks, found themselves stepping off the sidewalk to avoid maskless people approaching them.
“I was just getting tired of walking into the street,” Price says. “Then I started talking to other people, and their experience was the same.”
No one prefers to wear a mask. They make you sweat, and toss your coffee breath back at you. But experts have pointed to them as our best defense against a virus that has already killed at least 193,000 Americans and left many survivors with lingering reminders.
Masks are the cheapest and most accessible way we have to keep the most vulnerable in our communities safe.
In that sense, snapping those elastic bands behind our ears is about putting public good before personal comfort.
Pro-mask advocates get that. Anti-mask protesters push against that (often through shouts and in groups that defy social distancing). And somewhere in between are the people that growing efforts across the country hope to reach: those who can be persuaded to embrace that.
In a Washington Post article last month, my colleague Marc Fisher wrote about how pro-mask advocates are fed up and showing it by posting on social media, giving their business to places that enforce mask usage and calling on officials to do more to make sure people are covering their faces in public. At least 34 states and the District have put in place mask requirements, but they often aren’t enforced. As Fisher wrote, “a rising sense of outrage is leading this silent majority to push back against the smaller but louder anti-mask contingent.”
The effort by Price’s group reflects just one speck of that pushback, but it is an interesting one.
It is not a rushed reaction to the pandemic. It is a slow study of human behavior.
It is a coordinated effort by a group of people who know too well how precious time is and yet have chosen to spend theirs trying to better understand the habits of their neighbors.
The group’s members are all part of the Capitol Hill Village, which helps older adults live independently, and they hope to eventually launch a mask-wearing campaign in their neighborhood that is similar to ones that have taken hold elsewhere in the city.
The NoMa Business Improvement District launched its “Wear a Mask” campaign on Aug. 27, and now, hundreds of posters and signs adorned with the work of four local artists occupy restaurants, apartment lobbies and yards.
The Capitol Hill group knew early on it also wanted to create posters and signs. What it didn’t know was what they should say or who needed to hear the message on them.
That’s how they came to start paying closer attention to the people around them.
A look at some of the group’s graphs show they tracked the behavior of people in seven parts of the neighborhood, including Eastern Market and the waterfront, and broke down their findings by gender and how a mask was worn — fully up, dangling from a face, held in a hand or not at all. (They didn’t count people on bikes or scooters.)
“We had to figure out where and who and why,” Price says. He believes people can change because before he retired, he used to work as a “change manager” for several government clients. “I never figured out how to motivate people to change, but what I did find was that people have their own motivations for changing.”
The group’s findings are not scientific. They know that.
But already they have shown one consistency: Men tend to comply less than women when it comes to wearing masks fully or even partially.
But how you change that behavior is the question the group is now considering.
What words might persuade a man who still doesn’t consistently wear a mask in public places to put one on?
What image holds the power to convey that masks are not an admittance of fear, but rather the opposite?
“It’s strong male behavior to want to protect others from something you might have and not know about,” Price point out.
He says the group is hoping for suggestions on their campaign — so readers, if you have any, send them my way. The group is aiming to gather a broad range of ideas, knowing that it’s going to take different messages to reach different people.
For some, it might take an endorsement of masks by an admired athlete.
For others, it might take tapping into their loyalty and reminding them that they don’t always know if their friends have health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus.
For a few, it might be enough to know that their behavior is worrying some of their older neighbors who could be doing better things with their time than trying to help them.
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