Is the Remote-Controlled Mask the Metal Straw of the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Most environmental panics have some sort of gimmicky product response. The coronavirus pandemic is no different.


Every environmental panic produces a flurry of gimmicky products meant to combat the problem while allowing people to continue living their normal lives with minimal disruption. Plastic pollution gave us the metal straw. Climate change birthed the Toyota Prius.

In the age of COVID-19, that gimmick might just be the remote-controlled mask. On Tuesday, Reuters released a truly disturbing video of Israeli entrepreneur Asaf Gitelis showing off his latest invention.

"The mask will be opened mechanically by hand remote or automatically when the fork is coming to the mask," Gitelis told Reuters. "Then you can eat, enjoy, drink and you take out the fork and it will be closed, and you're protected against the virus and other people sitting with you."

Reusable straws and hybrid cars both offered, at best, dubious environmental benefits for the problems they were intended to solve. The emissions reductions stemming from hybrid cars' improved fuel economy are largely offset by the extra energy required to produce them. Metal straws might reduce the consumption of the plastic variety, but the latter make up only a tiny, tiny fraction of overall plastic waste.

Similarly, it's an open question of how much added protection these remote-controlled masks will give diners. Obviously, any mask with a large opening in the middle is going to be less effective than one that doesn't have a huge gap. Video of the contraption appears to show an imperfect seal on the mouth hole even when it's closed.

Restaurants that have reopened are usually required to adopt social distancing protocols like spacing out tables, moving diners outside, and operating at reduced capacity. If those are effective measures, there's really no need to wear Gitelis's invention. If they're not, perhaps folks are better off not dining out at all.

On aesthetic grounds alone, the mask is a failure, as evidenced by some of the immediate reactions to it.

Vice describes it as "visually terrifying."

Watching someone eat is already pretty gross. Gitelis's mask makes public mastication even more disgusting by ensuring that anyone using his device will be shoveling food into an open, flapping exterior mouth. Fine dining etiquette this is not.

The new mask does tell us something about the trajectory of people's moods as the coronavirus lockdowns have gone on. Most everyone is sick of social distancing, while still being nervous about returning to public life. We want something—anything—that will allow us to go back to socializing in a world where coming down with COVID-19 is an ongoing concern. This is one attempt, however foolish and disturbing, at giving people that peace of mind.