“I love my mask,” said one park visitor on his way back past the Chavez Park Conservancy free mask table, where he had picked up a mask on his way in. Everybody who put it on commented on how comfortable it was and how easy it was to breathe through the 3-ply cotton fabric. A creative mom figured out that by tying knots into the ear loops the mask could fit even her little kids. Most families I saw were completely masked up because the kids, of course, wanted to wear masks just like Mom and Dad.
Giving away free masks on Saturday and Sunday was one of the more rewarding activities I’ve been involved in. So many people gave me strokes for doing it, as if it were something very special. People were so appreciative that several insisted on donating money even though we were not soliciting in any way. On Saturday, one person gave $15, another gave $20, a third gave $5. On Sunday, one person donated $20. Actually, giving away free masks only seems special because hardly anybody else is doing it. That’s perverse, when you come to think of it. All these government and health authorities are telling everybody to wear masks. What would be so hard about these agencies setting up tables in public places and giving masks away? These comfortable cloth masks come from China via amazon.com at $29.99 plus tax for a bag of 50, which comes to 67 cents apiece. There are other sources as well. It wouldn’t break the public budget to distribute them to everybody.
On Sunday I finally got my act together to keep a tally. I made chicken scratches on a sheet of paper for walkers, runners, and bicyclists, wearing face coverings and not. During the slot from 3 pm to 5 pm on Sunday, I tallied 469 people who passed the table. That includes some double counting as people who made circuits of the park or who came in and out were counted each time they passed. Of these, 385 or 82 percent were on foot, 16 or 3 percent were runners, and 68 or 15 percent were on bicycles. Here’s the raw data on face coverings as they approached the table, where anything over the nose and mouth — a bandanna, scarf, pulled up turtleneck, any kind of mask, or whatever, counted as a face covering:
|Pedestrians Wearing Face Coverings||Pedestrians Without Face Coverings|
|Runners Wearing Face Coverings||Runners Without Face Coverings|
|Bicyclists Wearing Face Coverings||Bicyclists Without Face Coverings|
|Total Wearing Face Coverings||Total Without Face Coverings|
These numbers make it clear that among park visitors overall, including all modes of mobility, the great majority (81 percent) were wearing coverings at the time they approached the Conservancy table. This majority was strongest among the walkers, with 88 percent wearing face coverings. Among runners, there was an even split, with half wearing and half not wearing coverings. Among bicyclists, a small majority (53 percent) rode by without face coverings.
I also kept track of how many people of each type took a mask from the Conservancy table. Here are the numbers:
|Pedestrians Wearing Face Coverings Who Took Masks||Pedestrians Without Face Coverings Who Took Masks|
|30 out of 340 (9 percent)||29 out of 45 (64 percent)|
|Runners Wearing Face Coverings Who Took Masks||Runners Without Face Coverings Who Took Masks|
|Bicyclists Wearing Face Coverings Who Took Masks||Bicyclists Without Face Coverings Who Took Masks|
|3 out of 32 (9 percent)||9 out of 36 (25 percent)|
The numbers indicate that during the two hours on Sunday afternoon, 38 people who had not been wearing face coverings when they approached the Conservancy table took a mask. In almost every case I watched them put the mask on. This number now became mask wearers, so that the number of persons without face coverings as they left the table declined from 89 to 60, and the number wearing face coverings increased from 380 to 409. During that time slot, in other words, the Conservancy table increased the proportion of park visitors wearing face coverings from 81 percent to 87 percent, and reduced the number not wearing face coverings from 19 percent to 13 percent.
An unexpected trend, which I also noticed on Saturday, was the number of people already wearing face coverings who asked for masks from the Conservancy table. As the numbers show, some 30 pedestrians and 3 bicyclists who were already wearing face coverings wanted the masks. In most cases, these were people wearing bandannas that did not feel comfortable or effective; they wanted real masks. Some people were wearing paper masks or complained that the masks they had were uncomfortable, worn, or broken. A few people seemed to have perfectly good masks but wanted a backup or just couldn’t pass up a freebie. I didn’t argue; better they had one mask more than they really needed than one mask too few.
A day earlier, on Saturday, I staffed the table in the park from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 pm, and distributed just short of 100 masks. I did not keep a tally at that time, but my impression is that the numbers would be approximately the same, except that there were more runners in the morning hours.
Obviously most people had figured out a way to cover their faces, and most of those wore some kind of mask. But it became clear to me that some people wanted to wear masks but did not know where to get them, or did not have the means to afford them, or had put it off. The eagerness and sometimes disbelief on their faces when they saw masks available for free spoke volumes. When public health authorities lecture people about the need to wear masks but don’t provide an abundant free supply of these devices, which are not at all costly, then there will be significant coverage gaps. Even with the very modest distribution that the Conservancy was able to provide, a remaining gap of 13 per cent of uncovered people in the park is still too large.
The 16 people out of the 45 pedestrians who did not have face coverings on and did not take a mask when offered included a handful who told me “I’m OK, I have a mask,” pointing to their pocket; a few who had heavy earphones on and tunnel vision; a few who seemed very new in the country; and a few who were in denial about the pandemic or felt somehow above it. Two people told me that face coverings were not necessary outdoors because they would not come within six feet of anyone else. That may have been their intention but they could not control the pathways of others. In the busy condition of the park, the chances of never coming closer than six feet to anyone else were slim. Because of this and similar issues, the Berkeley Health Officer has asked people outdoors to cover up when approaching within 30 feet of another person. In a pandemic it’s better to be a little more cautious than necessary, rather than less.
A friend who had visited the park earlier in the week and felt dismayed by the number of people without face coverings suggested that the paved perimeter trail be made one way. Good idea but it would have to be adopted by Parks management, signage would have to be posted, and there would have to be enforcement.
This story would be incomplete without a word of thanks to the people who have donated to the Chavez Park Conservancy, in addition to those who gave money at the table. Without their generous support, initiatives like the free mask table would not have been possible.