On April 3, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis advised everyone in our state to start wearing masks anytime we go outside – whether we’re shopping in a grocery store or walking our dogs. He suggested we make them out of old T-shirts, like a “1998 guacamole champion” shirt that shrunk and we thought we’d never use again.

The news caught my attention, not just because it made me wonder about my governor’s relationship with avocados, but because I live in a densely populated North Denver neighborhood and walk my dogs twice a day. The big one insists on it – we even hit the streets together in the 2019 bomb cyclone.

Lately, I’ve been walking Rio and Peach alone because my 48-year-old husband, Bryan, is at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Twice a day, he takes medication to suppress his immune system because he had a kidney transplant. The drugs help keep his body from rejecting the kidney I was able to donate to him.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, Bryan’s been housebound since a risky evening walk with our dogs. Our Lab mix, Rio, had stopped to sniff some delectable urine when another large dog charged out a fence at us. I hollered, “Is your dog friendly?” as a woman in bare feet ran out, trying to tackle the uncollared canine who clearly hadn’t been trained to “Come.”

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She also kept violating social distancing, repeatedly coming well within 6 feet of us as her dog kept dodging her.

“He can’t be outside!” she yelled as she hurdled Rio’s leash to try to grab the loose dog. 

An ice cream truck started tinkling down the street, providing a creepy soundtrack to my mounting terror.

“He’s immunosuppressed!” I shrieked, pointing at Bryan with one hand and using the other to wildly gesture at him to grab Peach and run to the other side of the street. But it was nearly impossible to escape. The dog – and woman – kept running around us for blocks. 

It’s just a tad stressful to love someone with a compromised immune system right now.

Especially when some of your neighbors are total COVIDIOTS.

To protect Bryan, I’ve worn masks in public places before. It’s always a surreal experience because it’s been so uncommon in America. The first time we donned masks after his transplant to follow the advice of his doctor, we gave each other a look like, “This is crazy!” and boarded an airplane. His parents – who are amazing and love us – were already seated on the plane and lit up when they saw us.

“Is this a stickup?” his dad cracked.

His mom leaned over with a giggle.

“I was going to ask, “What is this, Halloween?”

So I’m well aware that wearing protective masks if you aren’t a professional health care worker, even when people know why you’re wearing one, can look and feel weird AF. 

But as I first stepped into my neighborhood wearing a mask for a dog walk during the coronavirus pandemic, I began to realize it didn’t just feel weird. It felt empowering.

The first person I saw was an elderly man riding past on his bike. He gave me a big wave and called, “Hello!” A block later, a couple was having drinks on their porch. They grinned as they spotted me.

“Feeling cool,” I said sarcastically, then made my pup sit for a treat. They applauded.

I got a few concerned looks from people who saw me in a mask and crossed the street to get away from me, possibly thinking I was sick. What a fringe benefit – strangers giving me a wider berth instead of expecting me to try to wrangle a dog in traffic to get off our narrow sidewalks.

I finally saw a young woman in a beautiful rose scarf tucked around her face like a mask. “Alright! Let’s hear it for early adopters!” I said from about 12 feet away. 

“Yes – now we need other people to care enough to keep us safe,” she replied, referring to the CDC recommendation that we all wear cloth masks in public to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

Gov. Polis suggested Coloradans make wearing masks “cool.” So when I’m about to head outside in a mask, I pull on a colorful skirt, throw my shoulders back and almost strut. I’m not going to slouch or act ashamed about caring about my neighbors – and loved ones, of course. Right now, it’s a badge of honor to wear a mask to try to flatten the curve and save lives.

I tell myself to focus on the strangers wearing masks instead of all the ones who make me feel scared for my husband’s health and my own sanity. When I see other people in face coverings, we wave and cheer for each other – solidarity! YouTube is full of tutorials about how to make masks out of bandanas, old T-shirts and even bras. I take comfort seeing my neighbors’ creations.

Still, there’s an overwhelming amount of joggers, cyclists, inline skaters, scooter riders, walkers and families who aren’t wearing masks when they cruise around outside. I fervently hope that changes. Sure, it will never feel normal to wear a mask while strolling our neighborhoods. 

But hopefully, very soon, it will look normal.

Jen Reeder is a freelance journalist and immediate past president of the Dog Writers Association of America. She lives in Denver.