Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Where Did the Masks Go?

Feb 6, 2022

Where Did the Masks Go?

tags: public health,television,COVID-19

We watched the NFL playoffs last weekend. As everyone has already commented, the football was unusually thrilling, with all four games decided on the final play.

Exciting also was the glimpse that the TV provided into the future, when COVID will be just a bad memory. On the field, in the studio, and during the commercials, the pandemic had disappeared. So there was no need to wear masks.

For hours I watched carefully for any sign of a mask. Naturally the players didn’t wear masks. Neither did the coaches, although just a few weeks ago, NFL coaches were all wearing masks. Since December 16, masks have only been required at indoors training facilities.

In July, the NFL mandated masks for all fans in stadiums. All sideline coaches had to wear masks, and three coaches were fined for not being properly masked during Week 2 games. Those rules are gone. I saw no masks on the sidelines this weekend and few in the stands. The two commentators during the game and the five guys in the Verizon Halftime Report also had no masks. NFL football is a mask-free environment.

NFL world is hardly real life. But the never-ending commercial breaks might be expected to portray more familiar environments: hanging out with friends, mealtimes, shopping. I watched carefully for hours and saw barely any masks.

The “Star Trek” movie concerns another place and time, so masks were probably inappropriate. The silly DirecTV ad where Serena plays tennis against a horde of Matrix-inspired avatars is also other-worldly. The Agatha Christie drama “Death on the Nile” could pretend that COVID is in the distant future. The three medical professionals in an ad for the hospital drama “Good Sam” were wearing surgical masks. But in all the imagined advertising scenes of normal life, masks were absent: the motorcycle guys in a GEICO ad; Progressive Insurance ads helping you avoid becoming your parents, even in a grocery store; the growing list of FBI programs; all the fleeting images from the lineup of CBS shows, from Queen Latifah to Stephen Colbert.

Pfizer paid for an ad congratulating itself on how their vaccine allows people to lead a more normal life, with a scene of people crowding into a restaurant without masks. State Farm showed Patrick Mahomes and “Jake” in a shoe store without masks. Indeed’s ad for job recruiting included a brief shot of a commercial setting without masks. Other ads in hospital settings showed no masks. AT&T displayed one of its stores filled with customers without masks.

There were a few masks. I saw one mask briefly in a Verizon ad. An actor with a mask appeared in the background of an ad for “NCIS Hawai’i”.

TV ads have changed over the past two years. Scenes of casual dining have been replaced by ads for safer food delivery. Indoor scenes were replaced by outdoor shots. Every scene I saw with unmasked actors could presumably be defended as conforming to CDC guidelines. But life on TV does not follow any pandemic guideline except lust for profit and fear of loss. Showing people in masks is a loser. None of us look good, or even friendly in a mask. Living behind a mask is unnatural, anathema to those who live by images.

We took a long break from TV to eat dinner. The fellow who delivered our dinner wore a mask. My wife said that he stayed as far away from her as possible. Both sets of my grandchildren are at home in different states these weeks, because daycare is dangerous. Many, maybe most people I see when I walk in my Boston neighborhood every day wear masks outdoors. On the bus or subway, in the whole MBTA system of vehicles and stations, only the rarest person is not masked.

That’s real life. I don’t expect real life from my TV – everything is highly produced, whether it is supposed to be real or not. But displaying life as maskless, presenting masks as unusual, unnecessary, even aberrant, normalizes the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers.

The murder victims on the crime shows I like are killed by individuals who nearly always get caught. The 2000 people who now die every day, mostly unvaccinated, mostly unmasked, are being killed off by their political leaders and professional polemicists, who commit their crimes against public health in public without accountability. They are supported by the “apolitical” media displaying a fictional world without COVID, a world I could only wish for.

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