Masks have become political. Here's what the health department says.

A state infographic shows the benefits of wearing masks.

CADILLAC — Normally cutting in line is not a life-or-death issue.

I figured she didn't see me, or assumed I wasn't in line, since I was standing so far from the people ahead of me.

Cutting in line isn't a public health risk.

But research shows that standing too close to other people right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, is.

Though she was wearing a mask, others around us were not.

I hesitated to say anything that might prompt an emotional response from the crowd. I didn't want anybody to yell, since raised voices can lead to spittle, which can lead to coronavirus infections.

My mask protects them from me—but my mask doesn't do a lot to protect me from other people. 

I didn't want to get COVID-19 over my place in line.

The state of Michigan's new "Mask Up" campaign highlights personal responsibility, telling the public it's on us to stop the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks and practicing social distance of six feet.

But enforcement is another matter.

Neither the health department nor the sheriff's department can do much about it if people refuse to wear masks while inside businesses.

"We do not have the authority to give fines or anything for this violation," said Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director of two local health departments, in an interview this week about mask-wearing. "But we get calls and complaints, all day long asking us, you know, 'Why aren't you doing something about this?' We feel very helpless and we try to educate and promote and help."

And the sheriff's office said it's not a crime to refuse to wear a mask.

"There's no enforcement action that we can take. There's no criminal violation," said Wexford County Undersheriff Richard Doehring. He said it often comes down to business owners or managers to enforce mask-wearing rules and social distancing.

Or fellow citizens can urge others to wear masks.

"It's more of a social pressure than it is a legal thing," Doehring says.

That means I have to actually talk to people?

"How terrible, we have to talk to somebody," Doehring teased.

Undersheriff Doehring said on Wednesday that the Wexford County sheriff's department had not received any complaints about mask-wearing in the past three days and he was not aware of any made previously.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive orders regarding wearing masks specifically state that there's no criminal violation for refusing.

But the state is urging people to follow the order.

"We can only contain the virus and keep Michigan open if everyone stays careful and masks up when they leave home, whether they feel sick or not," reads copy on the state's "Mask Up" webpage.

There's research that explains why masking can make a difference.

It helps to start with this fact: approximately 40% of the people who have been infected with the coronavirus don't show symptoms. You could have the virus without knowing and spread it to others without knowing it.

"We also know that people become contagious at least two days before they have symptoms, and actually they're the most contagious those two days before they have symptoms and the first day they have symptoms," Dr. Morse told the Cadillac News.

If you have the virus and don't know it, wearing a mask could reduce the risk of other people near you getting sick.

"If we are out and about, finding ways to not spread those germs ... is really important," Dr. Morse said.

And masks are good at that.

Even the masks that you've sewn at home can reduce the risk that you'll pass the virus on to another person.

"The state has provided some data on masking and they do cite two sources that say that masks can reduce the chance of spreading COVID by about 70%," Dr. Morse said.

The state explains it like this:

"COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact. All of us have droplets in coughs and sneezes that can carry COVID-19 to others. Coughs spray droplets at least six feet. Sneezes travel as far as 27 feet. Droplets also may spread when we talk or raise our voice. These droplets can land on your face or in your mouth, eyes and nose. When you wear a mask, it keeps more of your droplets with you. A mask also adds an extra layer of protection between you and other people’s droplets."

There's also growing research that suggests the novel coronavirus is "aerosolized" more easily than was previously believed.

In an interactive piece, the New York Times reported this week that the virus can stay "aloft" in the air indoors (and capable of infecting others) for hours.

Dr. Morse has seen some of the discussion about how much the virus is aerosolized.

"If anything, I would think that would argue even more for masks," Dr. Morse said.

"Cloth masks don't filter things as much as surgical masks, which don't filter things as much as N95. However, it will block more than nothing," Dr. Mose said. "And if, if this is more airborne than we thought, anything that will stop the flow of virus is important."

Your cloth mask will continue to be important.

Though the N95 masks and surgical masks do a better job of protecting you from getting sick (whereas cloth masks protect others from getting sick), Dr. Morse said she didn't think N95s would be recommended to the wider public because the fit has to be right for the mask to be effective. Health care workers regularly check their own fit when wearing the masks.

And there's still a matter of supply. Health care workers need the N95 and surgical masks.

But if things get worse, people at higher risk may be urged to wear surgical masks.

"I could see where, if we start seeing better supplies of medical grade masks like surgical masks, people with health problems or comorbidities that are at higher risk for complications may be encouraged to use surgical masks instead of cloth masks to give them more protection for themselves," Dr Morse said. "But at this time, we're still seeing that there's just not big surpluses of medical supplies, and we don't want our health care workers to need them and not have them."

The World Health Organization recently updated its list of recommendations for cloth masks, Dr. Morse noted.

Tips include washing hands before applying the mask and after taking it off, handling the mask by the straps, washing the mask daily and not wearing if dirty, soiled, damaged or wet.

There are some times when wearing a mask is not necessary.

If you're outdoors and not within six feet of someone from outside your household. If you're driving or operating heavy machinery and the mask may obstruct your vision. 

People with certain health conditions can also skip the mask-wearing, with a caveat.

People with COPD or asthma have a hard time breathing out—expelling air from their lungs. Masks may make that more difficult.

But those people might also want to re-think going out into public at all.

"The flip side to that is, those are the people that if they get COVID, are not going to do well," Dr. Morse said.

Cadillac News