THE WASHINGTON POST – Recently, Felix Brodie parked his car in front of the Vons supermarket in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and suited up: full-length black cloak, balaclava, black leather gloves, and the final touch – a reproduction of a 17th-Century beaked plague doctor’s mask (complete with top hat) that he bought on Etsy. Then he headed into the store to buy some yogurt.
The mask had been a joke purchase, bought on a whim at the beginning of the pandemic but serendipitously timed. “Right when it showed up at my doorstep, it was recommended that everyone wear masks in public,” says Brodie, 24. “I thought, well, perfect.”
When the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended, on April 3, that Americans wear masks to prevent the coronavirus’s spread, the agency issued instructions for making a simple cloth nose-and-mouth covering. But where’s the fun in that? And why rely on a bit of fabric when you own gear that at least seems as if it would provide more comprehensive protection?
Hence the Spider-Man in the canned food aisle. The dinosaur prowling the deli section. The unicorn walking a dog. These sightings, though not nearly as common as surgical masks and gloves, have accented our lockdown landscapes with flecks of whimsy: A couple visited their relatives wearing costume spacesuits. In China, one woman picked up medication dressed as an inflatable giraffe. In Italy, a man was reportedly arrested after breaking quarantine to go outside in a T-Rex suit.
Brodie’s beaked plague doctor getup was a deep cut, as costumes go, but its sinister absurdity was obvious even to those who didn’t get the reference. Some of his fellow shoppers at Vons laughed and took pictures. Others didn’t seem to get it. “There was one guy out front,” Brodie said, “He looked at me and shook his head and continued to sterilise the shopping carts.”
As he made his way around the store collecting his groceries – a difficult task, he learned, when you’re peering through eyeholes – he heard an announcement for security to report to the registers. Shortly afterward, he said, a manager and a guard politely escorted him out.
Brodie still needed groceries. So he headed for a different store, Stater Brothers, where he wasn’t sure what to expect. “I step inside and put my hands on a cart,” Brodie says, and “I hear a sharp, ‘Excuse me sir!’ “
He turned his beak toward the woman who had addressed him, expecting to be booted once again. “She said, ‘Those carts aren’t sanitised! These ones are’.”
Last month, Brynne Henn, 29, wanted to see her boyfriend, DJ Slaughter, but worried about catching the virus because she has asthma. So the couple purchased inflatable costumes – a T-rex for Slaughter, a unicorn for Henn – so they’d be able to walk around San Francisco and embrace without touching. The costumes were the kind that enclose the wearer in vinyl and include an internal fan to keep them from sagging and losing their shape. “Hazmat suits,” Henn called them.
Well, not quite, according to the feds. Kate Grusich, a CDC spokeswoman, noted that effective protection fits closely to the mouth, has multiple layers, and is easy to wash and sanitise. “While CDC appreciates the creativity that some Americans have shown in protecting against COVID-19,” Grusich said, “an inflatable dinosaur suit will not provide more protection than a cloth face covering.”
(Henn says the costumes made her feel “a little more protected” than if she were just wearing a mask, but “in the back of our minds, we were like, I’m sure this isn’t PPE,” ie personal protective equipment.
“I guess I knew it was really not safe,” said Tiffany Roehr, who started wearing her own unicorn costume – which she named Matilda – to walk her dogs around her neighbourhood in Bradenton, Florida. “I definitely wouldn’t go in tight quarters with it.”
Could a little Halloween in April be enough to keep dread, if not the virus itself, at bay?
Oriental Trading, which sells costumes and party supplies, saw a 20 per cent increase in Halloween mask sales last week, “but we do not know if this is attributed to virus prevention,” said Director of Corporate Communications Michelle Johnson. (The company’s bandanna sales, she notes, have gone up 720 per cent.)
At HalloweenCostumes.com, there was an uptick in sales of inflatable costumes beginning mid-March, and year-to-date sales have nearly doubled compared with the same time period last year.
Among the inflatables, hippos are popular, but T-Rexes are the bestsellers: They’ve been spotted in grocery chains across America, including Publix, Hannaford,Mom’s Organic Market, Walmart and HEB.
But, again, if anyone who thinks these blow-up suits are a substitute for proper PPE, prepare to have your bubble burst. “If there are virus-containing particles in the air just outside of the blower, then they would be blown into the costume and potentially breathed in by the costume wearer,” said Jose-Luis Jimenez, a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specialises in aerosol science.
He added, “I would certainly not recommend it for protection purposes. But it is fun of course!”
OK, but what about if you wear a real mask under your fun mask?
To answer that question, we turned to furries.
“It can be dangerous to put another mask on underneath,” said the Public Outreach Director for Anthrocon John Cole, the annual convention for the subculture of people who delight in wearing animal costumes.
Why? It’s already muggy in those headpieces, he said. A furry might faint with another mask on.
Amid furries, “Not many people are using the costumes for protective measures,” said Cole.
So, costumes might not be a solution. Still, the idea of wearing something more comprehensive than a mask has been floated at high levels.
“I was thinking about this – why don’t we just put everybody in a space outfit or something like that? No. Seriously,” Stephen Moore, a member of United States President Donald Trump’s economic task force, said in an interview with The New York Times. “I was looking online, and there are all these kinds of suits that they’re building now that you’re not exposed.”
True enough, a bit of Googling around might lead you to such inventions as the Bubble Shield, a concept from the firm designlibero, which envisions a world of people walking around in plastic eggs with solar-powered filtered air. Or the WalkingPod, a wearable clear plastic tent that was intended as weather protection for outdoor workers and sports spectators.
“People have bought them and gone shopping in them,” said CEO of Under the Weather Rick Pescovitz, the company that sells the wearable tents. The sight of Chick-fil-A employees wearing Pescovitz’s pods, presumably for virus protection, reduced one TikTok user to gales of laughter in the drive-through. (“We do not have much to share about these,” said a Chick-fil-A publicist.) Pescovitz wore one of his pods on a flight from Cincinnati to Naples, Florida, in February. “My wife was about to kill me,” he said, but “the flight attendants said it was the coolest thing”.
Because the devices open and close with a zipper, “We have to be careful that we don’t say this will prevent you from getting the covid virus,” said Pescovitz. But he added that medical professionals are buying his newest creation, called the IntubationPod.
As for the costumes, they’re at least good for a laugh – and that’s its own kind of protection, as Americans near the end of a second month of limbo.
At Stater Brothers outside of Los Angeles, Brodie, the beaked plague doctor who just wanted to buy groceries, was not only permitted to buy his yogurt; he became a minor celebrity. Employees and shoppers came up to him and asked to take photographs. Committed fully to his character, he remained silent and mysterious.