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This photo of a professor wearing a mask went viral. So did his response to critics

Masks have been a common sight during the pandemic.
Cindy Ord
Getty Images
Masks have been a common sight during the pandemic.

It doesn't take much to go viral nowadays.

Take Jon Levy, a professor and chair of the department of environmental health at Boston University's school of Public Health.

Earlier this month, an image of Levy went viral on Twitter. The cause? He was wearing an N95 mask alone in his office.

After prompting backlash from critics, Levy posted a Twitter thread explaining why he chose to do so, asking, "Am I crazy? Am I virtue signaling? Am I fearmongering? Or is there some rationale to wear a mask in a private office? Let's discuss."

All Things Considered took him up on that offer. He discusses why he wore the mask, the motivations behind his Twitter thread in response, and some thoughts on mask guidelines.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On why he chose to wear the mask in the first place

Even though I was on a video call, obviously, I was in a physical space, which is my office, and it shares air with other offices and with the bathrooms that are just across the hall from my office. It's important, I think, to remember that COVID is transmitted through the air, and it can linger for a long time.

I have a spouse who treats COVID patients. I have kids who are in schools where masking is optional. I could be a source at any point in time to my department. And, of course, there are other people, students and faculty, who could be sources to me. Wearing a mask protects me from others and protects others from me.

On the reactions he got online

So the context was I was on a Zoom to discuss the potential need for more public health protections. I think some people saw the fact that I was wearing a mask on the Zoom and thought that that was some sort of signal, an attempt to frighten people or virtue signal, or just some sense that I was not approaching this in a fair-minded way. I think that the image was shared to sort of perhaps undermine my argument or say that I was going over the top with COVID.

On his hopes with his similarly viral Twitter thread

I really had a few goals. I wanted people to understand that COVID is mostly in the aerosol phase, which means very, very small particles that stay in the air for a long time. I also wanted to get across the very practical side of things, that a good, high-quality mask is very effective and actually can be very comfortable and affordable as well. And there's not a lot of downside to wearing a mask in a setting like that if you have a good mask.

I think the other thing I really wanted to try to get across, was more about the human side of things, not just the science side of things. Right now we should try to act with a little bit more grace and assume the best of people and assume that people who are wearing masks have very good reasons to do so. By the way, a good reason to do so is to simply say, "I don't want to get COVID, and I don't want to give COVID to others."

On how people can learn to coexist with different comfort levels relating to COVID precautions

I think my hope has been that we could get to a place where we think about masks or other public health protections as just simple tools to be used at some points and not to be used at others. That's not the same as a lockdown. We're not shutting down society. We're just taking a targeted measure to try to reduce transmission. And then when we get to a better place, the mask can come off.

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Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.