Will New NYC Transit Face Mask Graphic Send Bad Covid-19 Messages?

Last Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul lifted New York State’s face mask requirements for public transportation. Hochul announced this by sharing a pair of charts from the New York (NYC) MTA on the following tweet:

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

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

Hmm, what are you doing? 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 have do what?” For example, Lucky Tran, PhD, Walk for Science organizer and science communicator at Columbia University, tweeted the following:

Yes, the new MTA chart seemed to suggest that wearing a face mask over your nose, mouth, or neither would make a difference, which it just doesn’t. This could send the message that even if you wear face masks, you don’t even have to wear them properly, as science journalist Shawn Radcliffe tweeted:

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

This new MTA chart almost looked like a parody of the original MTA chart that was released in New York City subway stations earlier in the pandemic. In fact, @tomtomorrow tweeted the original MTA graphic and called it “The original ad campaign they decided to mock and undermine”:

As you can see, the previous MTA chart clearly put the words “No” under the unmasked face, “Not quite” under the face with the mouth exposed, “Try again” under the face with the nose exposed, and “C is the one” under the only face wearing a face mask properly. And those earlier descriptions made much more scientific sense. After all, which one would you rather have if someone next to you was infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and was coughing up virus-laden respiratory droplets from their mouth and nose? Do you prefer this person’s mouth and nose to be covered or not? If you answered “no”, is this your final answer or do you want to call a friend? How about a scientific friend who is an expert in public health?

The whole concept of “things are much less likely to leak if there’s coverage” isn’t a new concept. How would you respond if you were to ask a barista for a cover for your latte and you got the answer, “it doesn’t matter, cover or no cover.” I will make myself. It’s unclear why the MTA would post a graphic that essentially contradicts and potentially parodies the rationale for its previous face mask requirements. It’s not like the MTA can act like what happened on the TV show dallas and declare that all his previous advice is just a dream.

Speaking of parodies, Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, epidemiologist and head of the COVID risk task force at the New England Complex Systems Institute, shared some real parodies of the new MTA graph on Twitter. The first poo (and pee) MTA chart incorrectly suggested that the four people were equivalent:

The second parody graphic included the word “yes” only under the first face wearing the face mask correctly, and then some extra sauce under the other three:

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

The third face with the mouth exposed was accompanied by: “No, seriously. Most five-year-olds even know it’s wrong.

And finally, the fourth face without a mask had next to it: “Thank you for putting your selfish right and your lack of empathy before the lives of the disabled and immunocompromised.”

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

CIDNY stressed that not requiring face masks will put those at greater risk of more severe outcomes from Covid-19, such as people with disabilities and those with weaker immune systems, at higher risk. Their statement also said that “images showing improperly worn masks can be dangerous. We’re glad masks are encouraged, but we don’t need encouragement. We need security.

Again, it is unclear who created the new MTA chart and what it is supposed to be used for. Why did such a graphic have to accompany the lifting of face mask requirements? There is already plenty of evidence that face masks work. To suggest in any way that it makes no difference whether you wear a face mask or whether you wear it correctly is not in line with scientific evidence. Also, it will be all the more difficult to reinstate face mask requirements anywhere if they were to be needed again in the future, like oh maybe this next winter if Covid-19 were to increase again.

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