People wearing a face masks to protecting themself because of epidemic in China. Selective Focus. Concept of coronavirus quarantine.
Credit: iStock

As I was tossing and turning in my bed last night, I thought about calling in sick today. It’s not something I’ve done more than once or twice in this job. In general, writing makes me feel better, so there’s really almost no circumstance where I’d want to spend an entire day not writing. But this pandemic was starting to get to me. It’s not that I feel ill, although with all this stress and worry I can’t say I feel well either. It’s more that I’m finally confronting something that kind of asks me to just step back and observe without comment. A little voice is saying to be still and quiet for a moment. Maybe I need to find my bearings.

But I can’t do it. I can’t report in as sick when my sickness is so widely shared and yet isn’t truly incapacitating. The same things that are weighing on me like a black cloud are weighing on everyone else. For example, how do I safely procure food for my family when my wife is asthmatic and at high risk? I’ve made 3 a.m. trips to the local Wegman’s, but that’s not a healthy schedule for anyone. I’ve used the delivery services at Whole Foods, but their workers are striking over unsafe conditions and low pay. I’ve gone to convenience stores, but found it impossible to maintain a six-foot distance from the check-out person, let alone the other shoppers. What about my twenty-something step kids? They haven’t been rigorously isolating for 14 whole days, so under what circumstances should we get together?

My mother-in-law came up from Florida over two weeks ago, but I’ve only waved to her from a safe distance. She made the whole family some cloth masks. I’ve had mine in my coat pocket for at least 10 days now, but I haven’t used it. I very much appreciated her effort and thoughtfulness but didn’t think it would actually help since the virus is so small it can pass through cloth as easily as it passes through air. But now I realize that I’ve been making a mistake. The mask won’t protect me, but it could protect everyone around me.

You see, it’s very possible that I’ve been infected during my resupply forays and don’t even know it. If I cough into my mask, it will limit how far I spread the virus. This might even apply to the simple act of breathing.

As many as 25 percent of people infected with the new coronavirus may not show symptoms, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns—a startlingly high number that complicates efforts to predict the pandemic’s course and strategies to mitigate its spread.

In particular, the high level of symptom-free cases is leading the C.D.C. to consider broadening its guidelines on who should wear masks.

“This helps explain how rapidly this virus continues to spread across the country,” the director, Dr. Robert Redfield, told National Public Radio in an interview broadcast on Tuesday.

So, I have something to write about after all. I’m going to wear my mask from now on because I have no way of knowing if I have COVID-19 and I don’t want to put anyone at risk. I’ve taken as many precautions as I can, but who can say if the clerk at 7-Eleven had the virus or the woman at the grocery store who invaded my space to fix the glitchy self-checkout computer? They’re spending eight-hour shifts serving people, some of whom are almost definitely asymptomatic carriers. My township only has two confirmed cases right now, but the township where my Wegman’s is located has the highest rate of infection in the county. In fact, Wegman’s may be the reason for that.

These are now life and death decisions for me and my wife and possibly for anyone I encounter outside of my self-quarantine. Wearing my mask will make me feel self-conscious. But it’s the smart and moral play here. So, I’m going to do it.

This is another reason why we need widely available testing. Without it, even the smallest decisions can be paralyzing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at