Arts & Features Writer
Bright facemasks dot UNC Asheville’s quad as students walk to and from class. Wearing face coverings not only offers students protection from coronavirus but also a new way to express themselves.
Wearing a mask blocks droplets and some aerosols from transferring from person to person, according to Melinda Grosser, assistant professor of biology at UNC Asheville.
“I feel like it’s really important to wear it. I’ve been very careful to always wear mine when I’m going to be within 6 feet of people outside or any time. I think there’s a lot of new and old research that shows how effective the mask can be blocking droplets and even some aerosols. I feel like it’s really important to kind of try to protect each other and protect ourselves, a little bit, as much as we can,” Grosser said.
UNCA music instructor, Hwa-Jin Kim said wearing a mask can be hard for some professors because it’s difficult to talk to and understand students.
“It’s bad. It’s so hard to talk. Do you like wearing a mask? Who likes it? No, I don’t think this is really cool. It doesn’t let you talk too much as a teacher or as a human. You can’t communicate freely, right? It’s hard to see their facial expressions, it’s really hard to read students’ expressions, so you know they understand or not,” Kim said.
Grosser said it’s challenging wearing a mask because some students can’t hear what she’s saying.
“I feel like I have to speak a little bit louder so students can still hear and understand me. I also find myself getting out of breath because it’s kind of blocking my face a little bit. It’s definitely been challenging while trying to give a lecture and then, honestly, doing things that are a little more physical like walking upstairs. It can be tough. It is just uncomfortable sometimes,” Grosser said.
Despite some discomfort due to heat, wearing a mask makes students feel more safe on campus, according to Cayla Ritchy, a studio art student at UNCA.
“I feel very comfortable. I don’t have any problems with that,” Ritchy said.
According to new media student Julia Cullinane, wearing a mask all the time is not a big deal because it helps others stay safe.
“I am from Massachusetts, so we have had a mask mandate since March. For me it wasn’t a big deal. It’s definitely sweaty sometimes, but I don’t really mind it. Personally, it’s not like ‘Oh I want to wear a mask.’ COVID is going on and I have an invisible disability that could put me more prone to getting sick. So, I do for the safety of myself and others,” Cullinane said
She said communicating remains one of the most difficult parts of wearing a mask.
“I have a hard time understanding people. But, I mean, sometimes I get back to my dorm and I forget to take it off as I walk around for like five minutes with it still on it,” she said.
According to Grosser, not seeing people’s expressions proves difficult when trying to gauge students’ understanding of topics.
“One really hard thing is that I can’t see the students smiling or I can’t really tell what all their expressions are like, which is always nice if I make a joke and see people laugh. Or, if I’m teaching something really hard, I kind of don’t see if they understand. It’s hard when I can only see eyes,” she said.
Cullinane said people have a variety of masks to choose from, including disposable and reusable hand-made ones. People also use their masks as accessories, sporting different patterns, styles and textures.
“I think disposable masks work for people because they’re easiest, just because you put on. A lot of people overuse them though. I like the cloth ones,” she said.
According to Grosser, the kind of mask people prefer depends on the situation. The N95 mask provides the best protection, she said.
“Obviously, an N95 mask provides the best protection as long as it fits properly. They have to have a good seal on the face to get the maximum protection, but those are hard to get. They’re in short supply since our healthcare workers really need the best access to them,” Grosser said.
When one can’t access a N95, other masks can work as long as they have a good seal around the nose and chin, according to Grosser.
“K I-95 have been a little easier to find, those can be good. Surgical masks are helpful. Other than that, I think if you have to have just a cloth mask, the double wear cotton one fitting tightly to the face are pretty good options. I have some cloth ones that tie behind my ears. They really fit which I like because they don’t fall over my face when I’m talking. And then they go down over my chin. I feel it’s blocking really well and it also doesn’t risk falling by my nose or anything like that,” Grosser said.
Kim said the N95 mask makes it difficult to breathe while teaching so he wears an N94 from Korea.
“I know the N95 is the best but you can’t breathe as well while teaching. I do a lot of teaching. I’m using the mask N94 for Korea. This has four filters. I have to protect myself, and I have to protect the students, too, you know, just in case I’ve got the virus. I’m trying my best to keep everybody safe,” Kim said.
The color or textures on masks sometimes represent people’s personalities, Cullinane said.
“I like whatever goes with my outfit. Usually, I wear this black one. It kind of looks like it has a windows pattern on it, but it’s just like black and white patterning on it. I wear this one a lot. It represents my personality,” she said.
According to Kim, masks represent more than a trend. They are a necessity.
“Why is it a trend? It’s a necessity item. I know some people are using a kind of banana or those things. It’s not a fashion statement. No, no you have to have it to be safe,” she said.
Cullinane said people have an obligation to wear a mask because it keeps themselves and others safe.
“When I’m walking around by myself, I won’t wear it because I know if I’m more than 10 feet apart from people, I’m fine. But I have to, I want to keep other people safe. I want to keep myself safe,” Cullinane said.
Grosser said wearing a mask can put people at ease who may be experiencing anxiety surrounding the coronavirus.
“I think for safety, it’s important. I’m a microbiologist. I really, really worry about getting sick or somebody else not getting sick,” Grosser said. “I actually feel very anxious if I don’t wear a mask because I know that I’m putting others at risk. It’s part responsibility that I feel. Social responsibility and also it just makes me really nervous to think that I can be the reason somebody else may be sick,” Grosser said.
It’s hard to meet new people while wearing a mask, Grosser said.
“I think it is hard to meet a new person because you can’t smile with them and obviously with COVID you probably also can’t shake hands or do all the normal things to connect with somebody new. It’ll be a little bit interrupted, I think it is harder to make personal connections sometimes,” Grosser said.
Cullinane agreed masks make social interaction more difficult.
“It feels different and it’s almost like a barrier at first to meet someone since I don’t get to see exactly how they react to me and stuff, and I don’t love not seeing a person’s entire face but I can deal with it,” Cullinane said.
Meeting someone new may take a little more time because of masks but it’s still possible to make friends, even with social distancing, Ritchy said.
“I think it’s very cool, because you see them together wearing masks. I think it is kind of easy. Sometimes it is difficult to understand them through the mask.” Ritchy said.
Ritchy said most importantly, wearing masks keeps others safe and she will continue to wear them.
“I wear a mask out of caution. I want to do anything I can to slow the spread of COVID and keep myself and those closest to me safe,” Ritchy said.