General Civilian

On the Personal and Collective Imperative of Mask-Wearing

General Civilian cover art showing futuristic public space

With COVID-19 cases on the rise again here in Ontario, we thought that it would be a good idea to make a clear statement about the imperative of mask-wearing and lay out why our RS-1 is a serious and enhanced option for both personal and collective protection.

Given that:

  1. The emergent global scientific consensus holds that universal mask-wearing is among the most important collective practices to dampen the spread of COVID-19 (together with hand-washing and physical distancing) so that our social institutions and public health systems are not overwhelmed and can ably respond to the pandemic crisis as it evolves.
  2. There are two related perspectives in assessing the efficacy of mask-wearing: the individual/personal, and the collective/social. The purpose of creating a social norm around mask-wearing is to universalize (as much as possible) the practice of mask-wearing in order to dampen the spread of the virus so that our collective systems are not overwhelmed. While the collective perspective is necessarily interested in the statistical dampening of viral transmission, the individual perspective is principally concerned with the probability of a particular human being (oneself, or another specific person) being infected by the virus.
  3. For the purpose of collective protection (which is, rightly, what concerns policy-makers, versus what concerns individuals privately), cloth masks have emerged as the norm, which makes sense, since to be collectively effective the practice of mask-wearing must, again, be universalized, and cloth masks are as universally available (in abundant supply) and accessible (affordable for most) as clothing (since cloth masks are effectively just clothing for the face). Cloth masks are also reusable (simply wash like underwear/delicates and reuse) which is important since the climate crisis is also in the forefront of our minds.
  4. While cloth masks make the most sense to achieve universalization, there are clear instances (especially from the perspective of the individual) in which cloth masks are simply insufficient. If you want to amplify either your own individual protection (e.g., when it is necessary to commute on the subway or travel on a plane and your chance of exposure is heightened), or to amplify the protection of a specific individual with whom you must be in contact (e.g., a vulnerable family member whom you are caring for), surely one might consider something more effective than a cloth mask.
  5. The scientific evidence supports the assumption that mask-wearing dampens both the probability of the wearer spreading the virus, and also of the wearer being infected with the virus. The degree to which this is the case varies depending on the type of mask and its real-world performance (more on that in our next article). Evidence also suggests that mask-wearing can reduce the viral dose a mask-wearer might receive, thereby reducing the severity of infection if the disease was contracted. And if more people get mild cases, that in turn may contribute to enhanced immunity at the collective level. Individuals should take this evidence into account when assessing alternative mask options for increased protection over a cloth mask.
  6. The first widely-adopted alternative to the cloth mask is the ubiquitous blue single-use medical or “surgical” mask (generally, imported from China). While undoubtedly more effective than the cloth mask, it still has the general problem of gaping edges, from which air readily flows both in inhalation and exhalation. But these medical masks fail by yet other measures: we are quickly confronting the environmental disaster that these single-use non-recyclable medical masks present. And while some are proudly Made in Canada, most of our supply is still off-shore. The imperative of confronting the climate crisis and of developing national and local production capacity of PPE has never been so clear.
  7. N95 masks and respirators which are rated by regulatory bodies are generally reserved for use by medical and essential frontline workers, especially in emergency situations with critical shortage of supplies. This leaves a huge gap in the market: the general civilian needs access to a mask which has heightened protection over a gaping cloth or flimsy and wasteful medical mask but which does not need to meet the highest regulatory standards and certifications, as this would only create more expensive respirators reserved for medical and essential frontline workers. 
The RS-1 is our answer to this problematique: contained, reusable, adaptable and durable. Let’s break this down further.
    • Contained. By simply putting one’s hand over the aperture of the RS-1 and attempting to inhale/exhale one can easily test the seal and confirm for oneself the strong containment performance of the RS-1, representing a marked improvement over the gaping cloth or medical mask. 
    • Reusable. The substrate itself is easily sterilized and reused. Even when loading single-use filter squares, significantly less material will be used than a single-use medical mask (we estimate up to 6 times less). This produces less waste and simultaneously extends our collective supply of civilian mask material. One can cut up civilian-grade material (like a cotton t-shirt) or even extend supplies of surgical and N95 masks by cutting them into 6 segments, such that in an emergency when facing shortages, the RS-1 becomes a platform to extend critical supply.
    • Adaptable. The level of protection afforded by the RS-1 can be adapted as required by circumstances and personal choice. One can DIY improvised filter squares to achieve required/desired level of protection, or buy ready-made options from General Civilian: either pre-cut tightly-woven fabric squares, or medical-grade filter squares (to be used either alone or in combination. On this latter point, evidence suggests that multiple layers of different materials enhance protection). In spirit, the RS platform is meant to be an open innovation encouraging anyone to devise their solutions in response to local and personal dynamics and considerations.
    • Durable. Public health experts and medical professionals have broadly cautioned that the current pandemic may persist for years. Even after this current pandemic ends, going forward, we will likely keep mask-wearing in our individual and collective tool-kits as an option to rationally respond to a variety of situations and demands, personal and collective. Will it be normalized to wear a mask to visit the vulnerable in hospitals and long-term care facilities? To deal with living near wildfires? To limit exposure to household chemicals? To outfit protestors for political marches and demonstrations… the list goes on. Durability is key to a long service life for standard issue gear.
    • Comfort. And finally, while being durable, reusable and adaptable, the RS system (including gentle foam gasket and comfortable over-the-head elastic straps) also provides enhanced comfort and breathability over many cloth, medical or N95 masks and industrial respirators, and hangs easily around the next for on and off touchless deployment in and out of work sites and public places where physical distancing is not possible. We are currently working to optimize breathability and filtration performance analyzing multiple configurations, materials and combined assemblies through independent lab testing.
    In short, the RS-1 is our answer to a very specific design challenge: to make a strong and seriously engineered mask that is well-designed but not over-designed, that is intermediate between a cloth mask and an industrial respirator, that is populist and minimalist in aesthetic, that is universal, affordable and sustainable, that is Ontario Made by our people, that is environmentally responsible and that provides personal as well as collective protection. 

    This is just the beginning. Together and with your support, we can continue to evolve the RS Series to make the biggest possible impact.

    ~General Civilian