Apocalypse: Now What? A recipe for heroism

A reader asks: Is it safe to wear a mask in a professional kitchen?

Kitchen workers wear surgical masks and gloves as they prepare food

Kitchen workers Misael Cruz, 38, left, and Adam Rosas, 28, wear surgical masks and gloves as they prepare food at Little Tong Noodle Shop, March 24, 2020, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

Question: I’m a line cook. Is it safe to wear a face mask while standing over a steam table, breathing in steam and heat for a long period of time?

Last week, I made a brief allusion to how the prevalence of face coverings made it feel like we’re living in a budget Marvel Universe, where everyone has masks, but no one has superpowers. With The Guv (like Nick Fury, but pastier and obsessed with defeating carbon emissions instead of Hydra) now ordering that everyone must wear face coverings in public as of Friday, we are one step closer to that reality. 

I’ve got my custom mask all ready for the heroics necessary to defeat the coronavirus, but I’m still waiting to get bit by a radioactive otter or find out I’m Jeff Bezos’ secret heir so I can just build the damn OtterJet™ already. But if having superhero culture gavaged into our eyeballs every summer for the past 12 years has taught us anything, it’s that not all superheroes are created equal. I can admit OtterLad™ is more Hawkeye or Star Lord — basically, a human who can do tricks in a neat suit (just wait until you see my kickflips in OtterVision™). 

As a line cook, you are much more Thor or Black Panther: Without you feeding us, we literally wouldn’t be getting out of this pandemic alive. So from the bottom of my biomechanical flippers, thank you so much. 

Don't miss our do's and don'ts of homemade mask safety

Your very question illustrates your bravery and sacrifice: Steam and heat can’t be easy to bear, even without your superhero mask. But it’s a must, according to these guidelines. The reasons are clear: Even simple cloth masks are very effective at keeping the droplets that could spread coronavirus from escaping, while being quite breathable. Here are a couple primers to keep you up to speed on usage.

By and large, wearing a mask should be safe in your professional kitchen. But it could be wise to consult with a doctor if you have any underlying health issues, especially diseases like COPD or other lung disorders. They can assess the conditions in your workplace and whether you need special considerations or cautions. 

Next, avoid wearing N95 or other medical-grade masks — they’re much more difficult to breathe in and best reserved for doctors and nurses (the Captains Marvel and America, obviously). Light cotton or flannel masks will do the job and aid in respiration, especially in your challenging kitchen environment. If you can’t purchase one, they are fairly easy to make out of T-shirts or pillowcases (see the primers linked above).

The material isn’t super important, but a good rule is to hold it up to bright light and see if the mask blocks it out. Fit is important: It needs to cover your nose and mouth, but should feel loose on your face. If you feel cloth pressing your nose down or pressing tightly against your lips, that’s too tight. 

There’s been noise about carbon dioxide toxicity from masks being a health risk, but the evidence for that is about as solid as one of Loki’s trickster illusions. Unless your manager is Thanos, the restaurant is legally required to allow frequent rest breaks where you can get some fresh air. If you aren’t getting your legally mandated time, give ’em the Snap

Once again, I’m in awe of your established feats of heroism, and OtterLad™ is honored to fight alongside you as we confront this unending Chitauri invasion of a pandemic. One day, with a little luck, I hope we’ll get to drop the masks and share a shawarma.  

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.