The Perfect Enemy | Will New NYC Transit Face Mask Graphic Send Wrong Covid-19 Messages?
October 5, 2022
Read Time:5 Minute

This past Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul lifted New York state’s face mask requirements for public transit. Hochul announced this by sharing a pair of graphics from the New York City (NYC) MTA on the following tweet:

And here’s a tweet from the MTA that showed their second graphic:

In this case, MTA stands for “Metropolitan Transportation Authority” and not “most troubling advertisement.” But what exactly was the MTA trying to say with this new graphic? It showed what appeared to be four faces: one wearing a face mask properly, a second clearly wearing a face mask improperly with the nose sticking out, third also wearing a face mask improperly exposing the mouth, and a fourth not even wearing a face mask. Yet, even though these were clearly four different situations, the graphic had the word “Yes” under the first, second, and fourth faces and the words “You do you” under the third face.

Umm, you do what? After seeing this new graphic, a number of people including scientists, public health and medical professionals, and science communication experts responded on social media with the equivalent of “they did what?” For example, Lucky Tran, PhD, an organizer for the March for Science and a science communicator at Columbia University, tweeted the following:

Yeah, the new MTA graphic seemed to suggest that whether you wear a face mask over your nose, over your mouth, or over neither would makes no difference, which just isn’t the case. This could send the message that even if you do wear face masks, you don’t even have to wear them properly, as science journalist Shawn Radcliffe tweeted:

This would be kind of like saying that wearing pants is encouraged but it doesn’t matter whether you wear the pants on your head, your hands, or your lower body.

This new MTA graphic seemed almost like a parody of the original MTA graphic that was posted in subway stations all around NYC earlier in the pandemic. In fact, @tomtomorrow tweeted the original MTA graphic and called it, “The original ad campaign they have decided to mock and undermine”:

As you can see, the earlier MTA graphic clearly put the words “Nope” under the unmasked face, “Not quite” under the face with the mouth exposed, “Try again” under the face with the nose exposed, and “That’s the one” under the only face properly wearing a face mask. And such earlier descriptions made a whole lot more scientific sense. After all, which one would you rather have if someone next to you were infected with the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and spewing virus-laden respiratory droplets out of his or her mouth and nose? Would you rather that person’s mouth and nose covered or not? If you answered, “not,” is that your final answer or would you like to phone a friend? How about a scientist public health expert friend?

The whole “things are lot less likely to leak out if there is a cover” concept is not a new concept. How would you respond if you were to ask a barista for a cover for your latte and got the response, “it just doesn’t matter, cover or no cover. I’m going to do me.” It’s not clear why the MTA would put out a graphic that essentially contradicts and potentially parodies the rationale behind its previous face mask requirements. It’s not as if the MTA can act like what happened on the TV show Dallas and declare all of its previous guidance to be all just a dream.

Speaking of parodies, Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, an epidemiologist and Chief of the COVID Risk Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute, shared a couple real parodies of the new MTA graphic on Twitter. The first poo-pooed (and pee-pee-ed) the MTA graphic as incorrectly suggesting that the four people were equivalent:

The second parody graphic included the word “yes” only under the first face properly wearing the face mask and then a little extra sauce under the other three:

As you can see, the second face with the nose sticking out over the top of the face mask had the following words to the right: “Really? I mean, it’s been over two years, you can’t honestly be wearing your mask like this?”

The third face with the mouth exposed was accompanied by: “No, seriously. Most five year olds even know this is wrong.”

And finally, the fourth mask-less face had next to it: “Thank you for putting your selfish entitlement and lack of empathy before the lives of the disabled and immune compromised.”

Speaking of which, the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (CIDNY) voiced their disagreement with the lifting of face mask requirements on public transit in a statement shared on Twitter:

CIDNY emphasized that not requiring face masks will put those at higher risk for more severe Covid-19 outcomes such as those with disabilities and those with weaker immune systems at greater risk. Their statement also stated that “images that have been showcasing masks being worn improperly can be dangerous. We are glad that masks are encouraged, but we don’t need encouragement. We need safety.”

Again, it’s not clear who came up with the new MTA graphic and what purpose it’s expected to serve. Why did such a graphic need to accompany the lifting of face mask requirements? There is already plenty of evidence that face masks work. Suggesting in any way that it makes no difference whether you wear a face mask or wear them properly is not consistent with scientific evidence. Plus, it will make it all the more harder to reinstitute face masks requirements anywhere should they ever be needed again in the future, such as oh maybe this coming Winter should Covid-19 once again surge.