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Mask wearers butt heads with family, friends who won't follow the rules

Pandemic regulations and guidelines have left some families at odds on just how strictly the rules should be followed. Jeffrey Barton, of St. James, says that the tension is rising between him and his 94-year-old mother. Credit: Coery Sipken; Johnny Milano

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a role reversal between Jeffrey Barton and his mother.

Barton, 49, of St. James, who is an avid believer in social distancing and wearing masks, is acting as the strict parent, prohibiting his 94-year-old mother from attending her cherished weekly lunches with friends because they don’t wear face coverings or stay a safe distance from each other.

“It’s a schism,” Barton said. “She feels animosity toward me for facilitating the loss of her friends. They sort of keep inviting her. But they won’t agree to the ground rules. They won’t agree to meet safely.”

Barton is not alone in this newfound tension.

Long Islanders who describe themselves as strict mask wearers and followers of social distancing are butting heads with people closest to them — family, friends and neighbors — who don’t necessarily share their concerns during the coronavirus crisis.

Even when Long Islanders find themselves on opposite sides of the debate on how seriously to take the health scare, living among each other leads to varying outcomes, they said.

These include interacting with each other despite differences; choosing to stay away entirely; or as in Barton’s case — who is in the driver’s seat as his mother’s chauffeur — sometimes, there is no compromise among disputing parties.

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That is how it is playing out in Liz Cohen’s home in Port Jefferson Station as well. Cohen, 56, said she frequently has to put her foot down with her 16-year-old daughter Gianna, who has been invited to get-togethers with friends. Cohen was unconvinced attendees would wear masks or practice social distancing.

Being stern because of concerns over the coronavirus has not been easy for Cohen, who lives alone with her daughter.

“It’s unbearable,” she said. “Only because I have to prevent her from doing things that I know she wants to do that other kids are doing.”

She added it’s not only the behavior of teens she worries about, but also their parents. Cohen has told her daughter she is at risk of the disease because of her age in the most blunt terms.

“You get the usual, ‘Well, this parent doesn’t do that and her parents don’t do that.’ But I tell her, if something happens to me, then you’re an orphan. I hate to throw that at her, but that is the reality,” Cohen said.

Alicia Bosley, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Hofstra University, said disagreements between relatives, loved ones and neighbors over health precautions during the pandemic are common.

She said it’s important for people, even those who view COVID-19 as life-threatening, to “treat it like you would any other disagreement.”

Bosley said no matter what side of the argument one falls under, it’s also necessary to realize that everyone is fearful.

“We are all scared for different reasons. It’s fear of something, whether it’s losing your health or losing your liberty,” she said.

Bosley said all conflicts should be approached in a respectful manner, without condescension or judgment. She acknowledged that sometimes the only resolution is to step away from the relationship. But it’s also critical to remember the physical separation is temporary.

“When this is all over, you can go back to being close as friends, neighbors and family," Bosley said.

Joanne Hamilton, 69, who splits residency between Holtsville and East Hampton, has preserved a relationship with a longtime friend who, unlike her, doesn’t wear a mask in public.

Hamilton also often encounters that problem with her neighbors in her Holtsville co-op complex, where some residents are lackadaisical about shielding their faces with masks, which irks her, she said.

But Hamilton chooses to have more patience for a friend who doesn’t wear a mask when the two take long walks in East Hampton.

“She doesn’t wear a mask. It’s not worth losing a friendship of 18 years,” Hamilton said. “She’ll probably wear it if I ask her to, but she’s so uncomfortable with it.”

For Sharon Weingarten, 57, of Smithtown, life has been flipped upside down because of the pandemic, which has kept her away from her sister and other loved ones.

Weingarten has health issues like her mother, 79, and father, 86, who both live with her, making navigating life with friends and family a very delicate matter.

Also complicating things, Weingarten’s son, 25, recently temporarily moved into the home from Florida, where he lives permanently.

To survive under one roof, Weingarten’s parents live upstairs, while she and her son live downstairs. Mother and son are quarantining from Weingarten’s parents for two weeks — because COVID-19 cases have exploded in the Sunshine State — by staying away from the elders in the home, Weingarten said.

The two floors have separate air vents and kitchens, she said.

“I’ve been extremely, extremely, almost neurotically careful because I don’t want my parents getting sick. I worry more about them than me,” Weingarten said.

As an additional precaution, Weingarten said for weeks she has stayed away from her sister’s family, which includes her sibling’s two teenage children, as that family resumes a more normal routine in public.

They have been “banished from even coming on our patio out back,” Weingarten said. But, Weingarten added, unlike some Long Island families and their friends, everyone in her clan is lockstep over the decision, she said.

“They don’t have a problem with it,” Weingarten said. “We FaceTime and we talk on the phone. We text. We all stay in touch because we are a very close family.”

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