Masks in Louisiana During the Latest Pandemic

By Tom Whalen

Soon after the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the early spring of 2020, everyone in Louisiana was wearing a mask. At first, we didn’t consider it, but then a child in Bastrop woke one morning with the thought: If all Louisianans wore masks, might we not be safer and saner? From this one child (Albertine Alonzo, age eight, 541 East St.), the idea spread faster than a marsh fire. Town, city, parish, and state officials all came aboard, and shortly afterward, paper mills across the state were retrofitted and producing disposable masks daily by the tens of thousands. Now all citizens of Louisiana are delivered a monthly supply—free of charge.

New Orleans, as one might expect with its history of masking and Mardi Gras, was the first city to mandate masks, though “mandate” perhaps is the wrong word, since all New Orleanians acceded at once to the mayor’s request and 100% saturation was rapidly achieved. Now in bars we wear masks, as well as in grocery stores, beauty salons, hospitals, and at racetracks, where the horses too have partial face covering, and at ball games, where players also gladly cover their mouths and noses. We wear masks while dressed in ball gowns, lingerie, police, fire and scout uniforms, hospital scrubs, gym clothes, religious vestments, hunting gear, or nude in the privacy of our backyards or private beaches. In bed as well we mask, unless one sleeps alone, which statistically 3% of Louisianans do—the lowest percentage in the nation, by the way, due perhaps to our state’s strong sense of family.

Though prevalent in neighboring states, mask shaming never caught on in Louisiana. Only one incident has ever been reported: When a young man at a high school basketball game disparaged his peers for wearing masks, he was castigated for his behavior, and later that night shot himself in shame. No doubt, this was an overreaction, but what if citizens of other states took responsibility for their behavior? On May 7, 2020, ABC News reported about the U.S. (but not Louisiana!): "A dark new front has opened up in the battle over face coverings, which in recent days became flashpoints in a series of violent encounters across the country, including a security guard who authorities say was killed after telling a woman to leave a store because she was not wearing a mask.” We are such a singular nation.  

This morning, I wear a mask whose nose is so long I fear it will poke the crowd gathering in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. The steam calliope on the Natchez riverboat plays “Bye-Bye Blackbird,” and the air is full of the scent of beignets being served to tourists at the Café du Monde. All of us are masked and happy here on Jackson Square and stand six feet (or more) apart in order not to infect one another with a virus that statistically fewer and fewer of us carry, like a bad memory time will soon erase. 

Someday we hope to become the masks we wear, at which point masks and the concept of mask will become superfluous, and we will be free to close ranks again, to hug and love one another in ways only Louisianans can. 

In Zwolle, Winnfield, Westlake, Waterproof, Ville Platte, Tickfaw, Sunset, Sulphur, Slaughter, Shreveport, Ruston, Roseland, Quitman, Provencal, Plain Dealing, Oil City, Noble, Mound, Minden, Metairie, Melville, Lucky, Lake Arthur, Lacombe, Krotz Springs, Kinder, Kilbourne, Kentwood, Kaplan, Junction City, Jennings, Jena, Jean Lafitte, Iowa, Iota, Ida, Houma, Hosston, Hornbeck, Homer, Hodge, Harahan, Grosse Tete, Grand Isle, Grambling, Folsom, Faraday, Evergreen, Eunice, Eros, Elton, Dry Prong, Dixie Inn, DeRidder, Crowley, Cotton Valley, Church Point, Castor, Cankton, Bunkie, Bogalusa, Belcher, Baton Rouge, and Arcadia masks are worn with flair, distinction, and pride.

Today we are masking our statues. And someday, when we unmask them, what will we see? What we are? What we were?

After all, isn’t the sky itself, as our teachers taught us long ago, only a mask? 

About the author

Tom Whalen’s books include The President in Her Towers, Elongated Figures, Winter Coat, and Dolls. His fiction has appeared in Agni, Brooklyn Rail, Fiction International, The Idaho Review, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Witness and other journals, as well as in several anthologies. His translation of Robert Walser’s Little Snow Landscape is forthcoming from NYRB Classics in February 2021.

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