How Can I (Kindly) Tell People to Wear Masks in Public?

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I live in a small city that’s in the process of reopening as new Covid-19 cases remain relatively low. This is wonderful! Still, it frightens me to see people in stores and on buses, for instance, who are not wearing face masks as required by my state. I would never subject another person to the virus, even accidentally, if I didn’t know I was infected or have any symptoms! Do you have a script for asking strangers to put on their masks?


I wanted to road-test a script before suggesting one, so I tried my luck with three strangers who were violating New York’s mandate to wear masks indoors and when social distancing is difficult outdoors. I struck out every time! This surprised me. It also made me feel angry and helpless, even though most people I saw were wearing masks.

The first person I asked was a fellow shopper at the market. “Can you put on a mask, please?” I said, extra friendly. He ignored me, so I asked again. “I’m good,” he said. This annoyed me. “You’re good because I’m wearing a mask,” I told him. “Why not return the favor?” He glared, and I moved on. There is no upside in a screaming match with a person without a mask. Hello, viral droplets!

The next day, I was in the dog park, where playful dogs can often bring owners within six feet of each other. I pulled down my mask briefly, to smile and ask a woman nearby to put on a mask. “We’re outdoors,” she said. “But our dogs bring us close,” I replied. I even offered her a mask. She suggested I leave if I didn’t feel safe.

My final attempt was at the post office, where I tried a firmer tone with a man who pointed to a mask dangling beneath his chin, as if that should appease me. “Please pull it up,” I said. “It’s the law.” But he refused. “I won’t be long,” he said.

Now, you may have better luck than I did. But I’m not optimistic. No one screamed at me, like in the nasty videos I see online, but no one cooperated either. So, ask away.

But it may be more productive to report mask-less patrons to store managers or bus drivers when possible. (They have more authority to enforce the rules.) Or save your energy for trying to keep your distance from selfish people without masks.

Credit…Christoph Niemann

My grandson dated a woman for five years. After three years, I asked him if it was serious. He said it was. For Christmas that year, I gave her an aquamarine necklace that belonged to my mother. I continued giving her heirloom pieces for the next two holidays. Then they broke up, to my surprise. I asked my grandson to retrieve our family heirlooms, but his ex-girlfriend refused to return them. What can I do?


I’m sorry you mistook a “serious” relationship for one that was permanent (or might yield great-granddaughters). That doesn’t always happen, as you now know. The ex is under no obligation, other than a sympathetic one, to return gifts that were freely given to her. Givers retain no ownership in gifts.

But perhaps a call from you to the ex about the sentimental value of the jewelry may help? When something similar happened in my family, my mother agreed to buy back the heirlooms. (She was furious about it, but she did it.) Is that possible? And next time, think twice before handing over a tiara you intend to take back if circumstances change.

My brother and I were estranged for 15 years. The pandemic helped us break through our silence. Now, he has invited me to his 60th birthday party in September, which would require a six-hour flight. Obviously, I’m not getting on a plane now. How can I preserve our relationship? (He’s sensitive.)


I’m sorry the pandemic threw a wrench into your reconciliation with your brother. Call him and say: “I’m so happy we’re talking again! I missed you. If there was anyone I would get on a six-hour flight for, it’s you. But I can’t do that safely now. I hope you’ll understand.” Then send him a thoughtful gift, cross your fingers and keep talking. It’s not as if you have a sensible alternative, right?

For the last four years, since I was 9, I went to summer camp with my older brother in August. We love it. This year, after making many rules about masks and social distancing, our camp announced it would reopen. But my parents aren’t letting us go. They don’t think it’s safe. Can we add your name to the list of people protesting our parents’ decision?


Permission denied, camper! I’m sorry you’re disappointed. But I suspect the low adult-to-kid ratio at camp would put too much pressure on you to behave responsibly all the time. (And if my math is correct, you’re only 13 or 14.) Instead, use the leverage of your parents’ guilt to persuade them to buy you some nice swag or adopt a dog.

For help with your awkward situation, send a question to [email protected], to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.

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