Several weeks ago, James says he was out on a job as an electrician, being escorted around a building by a costumer who was not wearing a mask.
“I would be in the elevator waiting for him to use his [access] badge,” James said, “and he would come into the elevator and [say], ‘Oh, sorry, my mask.’ And then he would put it on. I was there with him all week and that happened at a lot.”
(James does not want to use his last name, because he fears getting in trouble at work.)
Several days after the encounter, James started to feel sick. He said he was concerned because he has underlying issues that make contracting COVID-19 especially dangerous – including asthma and high blood pressure.
“I’ve got kind of all the things they say could make it worse,” he said.
At first, James hoped it was his asthma that made breathing a little harder than usual. But then he developed a fever.
“From then on, it was like five days of fever and cough,” he said. “No taste. I could smell but no taste. And then basically between the five and seventh day is when I really went down and went into full-blown pneumonia.”
James said he never ended up going to the hospital, but he did some telemedicine visits and used an oximeter to measure the oxygen in his blood. Like a lot of people, he rode out the virus at home.
When he returned to work three weeks later, James said, he noticed people’s behavior had changed quite a bit. While he was out, Gov. Greg Abbott had issued an order requiring Texans to wear masks in public spaces. The order applies to any county with 20 or more cases of COVID-19, with few exceptions.
And since then, James said, people around him are wearing masks more often – and they realize they’re doing something wrong when they’re not.
Forced to be the bad guy
Ashmeen Dean, who manages a dental office in the Austin area, said her office started requiring masks as soon as it opened back up after the state’s short shutdown.
“There was quite a bit of patients just walking in without masks on and I had to tell them,” she said. “Most people were OK as long as I gave them one.”
But sometimes, Dean said, there were issues and at one point it got ugly. One busy day, a woman came in not wearing a mask. Dean said she and another patient, who was wearing one, quickly started fighting.
“And I was like, ‘Well, you know, I will provide her [a mask] – you don’t have to worry about it,’” Dean said. “But that didn’t stop them from arguing endlessly until I had to separate them.”
Dean said before the statewide order, she was constantly in a tough spot.
She said she wanted to keep herself, the staff and the patients safe. At the same time, however, there were a lot of patients who just didn’t want to comply with office rules.
“Then it becomes, ‘I want to speak to your manager,’” Dean said. “And then you are like, ‘Well, I am the manager. And sorry but this is what needs to be done.’ And then the next step that happens is that you read a bad review about yourself.”
Dean said she desperately hoped state officials would issue a statewide mask order, because the company policy was simply not enough.
“Before it happened, at least 50% of people were walking into my office without a mask on,” she said. “And eventually I just got so fed up that I had to put a big ole sign that said masks are required. Even then, people just bypass that sign and just walked in.”
Since the statewide mandate, Dean says she’s barely had to give someone a mask or even have to reason with a patient about it.
“Right now it’s the law – they follow it,” she said. “But when you say, ‘It’s our company’s rule,’ then people try to fuss about it, like ‘Show it to me in writing.’ So, there’s a huge difference and I am really, really thankful for the mandate.”
The new normal
The mandate also has been a welcome relief for people out in the world getting groceries and other supplies.
James McClure, who lives in North Austin, said he’s been wearing a mask since March and that he’s seeing a lot more people doing the same ever since the order.
“I went to a Lowe’s about a week ago and when I was in line there was not a single person in there that wasn’t wearing a mask,” he said. “Absolutely everybody. And that was the first time I’ve seen that.”
McClure said he wasn’t the only person struck by that: A woman walking up to the store without a mask quickly noticed.
“She looked around and got this funny look on her face like she realized something wasn’t right,” McClure said. “And then [she] sort of tucked her head down and pulled up her shirt. So even people who aren’t prepared or don’t know are trying.”
He said that’s something he just would not have seen a month ago.
McClure said he hopes this becomes a normal thing in people’s lives. It’s already become that way for his family.
“If you would have told me a year ago that I would have a box of masks in my kitchen and two or three of them in each of our family’s cars, and we would never go in another building without wearing one,” he said, “I would have thought you were absolutely out of your mind.”