“Mind your own f***ing business, this is a public space. Don’t tell us what to do. You do you, we’ll do us” said a Santa Monica beachgoer when asked to wear a facemask.

Less than a week after graduating with my Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University, I faced my first real-life public health challenge. On Tuesday, May 26th, post-Memorial Day weekend, the United States entered Phase 1 of reopening public spaces following the lockdown. Like many quarantine-rs itching for a change of scene, my sister and I drove to Santa Monica beach to walk along the breezy coastline and watch the beautiful California palm trees sway, taking what we thought were the bare minimum precautions – wearing a mask and keeping socially distant.

Our innocent escape turned into a public health nightmare as soon as we parked our car. To our dismay, what we thought of as the ‘new normal’, wearing masks and keeping a six-foot distance, seemed to be non-existent. We watched in disbelief as unmasked groups of people – bikers, runners and strollers alike – passed by shoulder-to-shoulder without a care in the world. Sidewalk vendors, children and even older folk were acting as though the novel coronavirus was a thing of the past. Although these same people may have seen their role protecting society while staying home, they failed to see their role in taking necessary precautions, and the direct connection between being responsible citizens with that of the folks on the frontlines. It felt like, in essence, a blatant disregard for the sacrifice’s healthcare professionals, essential workers and many others have made every day of this outbreak, to save and protect lives.

I felt my blood boil but, in that moment, I remembered my public health oath, the professional commitment I made to safeguard health as a human right. It starts with advancing health literacy for all and seek equity and justice for vulnerable populations. I began to educate.

“Excuse me sir, you should be wearing a mask, it is a requirement” I told a beachgoer as he continued to walk with his three children and wife, also unmasked.

“I don’t have to, I’m outside and masks don’t protect anyone from anything, they don’t work”.

“Actually, you do- it’s a requirement of this county and yes, because you are outside, you should be more inclined to wear one to avoid putting other people’s lives at risk even if you believe they don’t work personally”.

As I continued to remind other unmasked dwellers that wearing a face-covering was required, I came across a reoccurring problem- resistance. Many folks, specifically white males and females, were keen on turning a blind eye to my comments and instead, became defensive and uptight when asked why they weren’t abiding by the requirements. Some people, it seems, are going about life thinking they’re immune to the virus, avoiding responsibility and repeating the narrative “I’ve already had the ‘rona, I was tested negative” or “I won’t get it, not me – I don’t need a mask, go home if you’re so scared of getting sick”. Folks everywhere, this discourse isn’t patriotic in any sense of the word. It’s selfish, disrespectful and unnerving.

Although I believe in upholding people’s rights and freedoms, what does it actually mean to require something of my fellow Americans? Wearing a piece of cloth over my mouth should not be politicized but unfortunately, it is.

On May 19, Santa Monica, in alignment with Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles, issued an order requiring “a face covering while outside”. Constance Farrell, a Santa Monica city spokesperson said, masks should be worn “as soon as one steps outside.” With California becoming the fourth state in the United States with at least 100,000 known coronavirus infections, it is imperative that we continue to use protective measures for the foreseeable future.

Wearing a mask should not be “very unusual” (as the President of the United States ridicules), but should be a matter of fact in our “new reality”. President Trump’s statements like so many of the fellow beach goers have been concocted out of impulse and a resistance to change. Instead, the facts and reports should terrify us as a society and unite us against this deadly virus. We are opening the country in phases, yet people are unaware of what the requirements and restrictions are, and in some cases, are not even encouraged to follow them. Wearing a mask to protect yourself and the people around you should not divide us; it should unite us.

“We will all need to continue to work together on this, including practicing physical distancing and wearing our cloth face coverings when we are around other people. These actions work – they protect you, they protect others, and they save lives” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Director of Public Health for Los Angeles County.

And she’s right. Let’s do our part and acknowledge all of the people that have sacrificed their lives on the frontlines not just by banging our pots and pans but by continuing to encourage and practice physical distancing and wearing cloth face coverings when we are around others. This is the new normal.

I took an oath to commit to the ideals and mission of public health and from what I’ve been taught, there is no grey area when it comes to protecting the health of all people. This virus doesn’t consider one life more important than the next and neither should we. In the meantime, I will continue to do my part and hope you all will too.

Kiran Salman, MPH Candidate 2020, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

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