In a Downing Street press conference, the health secretary encouraged people to “think about those around them” and take necessary precautions, warning that infections could reach up to 100,000 a day during the winter months.
Face masks have not been mandatory across England since the easing of lockdown restrictions in July.
But while some people have celebrated the change in rules, others have remained nervous about the move towards personal choice, especially those who are clinically vulnerable to coronavirus, pregnant, or single-vaccinated and worried about rising cases of the Delta variant.
Earlier in the pandemic, we were told that wearing a face mask was primarily to protect those around us, so now, it’s understandable if you’re worried about your health being in the hands of others. If worn properly, face masks are also proven to lower the wearer’s own risk of catching Covid-19.
So, what do you do if you are forced to sit or stand in close proximity to someone without a mask inside or on public transport? Can you ask them to put one on?
Firstly, you need to remember not everyone can wear a mask and some people are exempt in all settings due to medical conditions or disabilities. Keep this in mind to calm any anger or frustration – and consider adding phrases such as “would you consider putting a mask on, if you’re able to?” into any conversations you have.
Secondly, you need to remember that this is a request – not a demand.
“We have to be realistic that it is not a given that we can control other people’s behaviour,” says psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo. “You can also utilise your own autonomy in addition to this, such as putting on a mask yourself or moving away. This may help when you are met with people who do not adhere to your request.”
Although face mask laws have been dropped, a lot of businesses are implementing their own policies, so check with a member of staff if they have a policy in place. If so, Dr Quinn-Cirillo recommends asking the staff member to intervene as a first port of call.
If you do decide to approach someone yourself, shaming them for not wearing a mask is unlikely to get them on your side – and may even lead to a negative retaliation. Because of this, Dr Quinn-Cirillo says using non-threatening language is vital.
“It can be helpful to start with some validation to ease into the request,” she says. ”‘I know restrictions have lifted and you’re not wearing a mask but...’ or ’I know you may be happy you don’t have to wear a mask, but...”
The key to a making request well, is making it about you and not about the other person, adds counsellor and psychotherapist Lucy Fuller.
“By telling them you feel anxious and so therefore uncomfortable about them not wearing a mask, you are making a request to them to wear one rather than telling them to, or demanding, that they wear a mask,” she says.
“People will not respond so well to a demanding or angry request as it will trigger them into feeling under attack and in need of justifying themselves, so a polite request, because you are the one who is feeling vulnerable, will always be a better approach.”
You might also experience the mask dilemma with people you know, or with acquaintances or business contacts that you’re meeting in person for the first time. If you are meeting someone in close confines, etiquette consultant Jo Bryant recommends addressing mask wearing beforehand.
She recommends saying something like: “Although lots of people aren’t wearing masks anymore, I have decided to continue to wear mine. Would you mind wearing one for our meeting? It would make me feel more comfortable while I adjust to the new normals again.”
If you are clinically vulnerable, or regularly see some who is, then mention it too.
Bryant suggests the following: “My elderly mother is in poor health at the moment, so we are being very careful to protect her. Would you mind if we both wore masks while we are indoors when we meet? I know it’s a pain, but I do need to be extra cautions.”
Like Quinn-Cirillo, Bryant emphasises the importance of recognising that you can’t force someone to wear a mask, suggesting you “approach the situation with caution and pick your battles”.
“If you are very anxious about non-mask wearers, you may need to be sensible on where you choose to go. You can’t step into the pub and request everyone puts on a mask,” she says. “Instead, you may need to work out if you are comfortable being in a non-essential enclosed public space at all.
“It may be more about managing your expectations and own decision-making, rather than trying to tell others what to do.”