The problem is that the CDC says fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks outside. And how are we to be sure that the person coming toward us is fully vaccinated rather than taking advantage? Personally, I’m reluctant to drop outdoor masking entirely until we’ve reached herd immunity.
Even With the CDC’s Blessing, Some Are Still Having Trouble Ditching Their Masks
BY EMMA SPECTERMay 4, 2021
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago, the notion of incorporating face masks into everyday life was still a foreign one. The World Health Organization told the general public not to mask in April 2020, later revising that advice by June, and N95 mask shortages soon came to plague the U.S. as more and more people rushed to outfit themselves with facial protection.
Over the course of the pandemic, many things have changed, but the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control as it relates to mask-wearing has remained the same. So, when the CDC recently updated its guidelines for outdoor masking, it came, to some, as a bit of a shock. Per the CDC, Americans no longer need to wear masks outdoors if they’re walking, running, hiking, or biking either alone or with members of their household, nor do they need to if they attend small outdoor gatherings—but what happens when your attachment to masking is more emotional than it is rational?
We’ve known for months that outdoor activity is, as a rule, far safer than indoor contact when it comes to the potential spread of COVID-19, yet the prevalence of anti-masker rhetoric has elevated masks from simple medical equipment into something of a personal comfort object. (After all, if you’ve got your own mask over your face, you don’t need to be as worried about whether the person next to you does or not.) Living in a city or state where outdoor masking is less common can conjure leftover anxiety, even if you’re taking individual safety precautions. “I live in a red state and cannot let go of my mask,” says Anne, 28, who lives in Kansas. “When I’ve been without it, I still find myself reflexively holding my breath when I’m remotely near anyone.”
Sarah, 27, echoed Anne’s concern, adding that her experience of living in Texas—a state that was early to reopen and relax mask wearing requirements—has compounded her confusion over whether to mask or not. “I’m starting to not wear a mask when I go to walk my dog, but it makes me anxious,” she says. “On the one hand, in Texas—even Austin—it feels like you’re making a political statement if you are or aren’t wearing a mask. But it’s difficult for me personally, I think, because messaging from the government has been less than clear, so it’s a twofold problem of wanting to demonstrate my belief in the seriousness of the virus and also my own anxiety around how badly this has all been handled more generally.”
Indeed, using a mask to signal your COVID-19 awareness and caution is fairly common. I noticed it myself on a recent run through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, seeing firsthand that even a week after the CDC relaxed outdoor-masking guidelines, my fellow runners and walkers still seemed to pull our masks up over our mouths and noses as we passed. Are we likely to contract COVID-19 from exercising outdoors? The science says no, but in my anecdotal experience, masking under those circumstances is just a courtesy in deeply uncertain and divided times.
Of course, not everyone is experiencing anxiety around the gradual end of outdoor mask wearing. Tyler, 26, says he’s adjusting to taking his mask off when he’s out and about in New York City. “I’ve been more relaxed, recently, postvaccination. Even when going on dates, I still opt for an outside activity, like going to park or a walk. But now, I’m more inclined to sit beside them on a bench and remove my mask to chat. It feels a bit naked, but freeing,” he observes. Despite his slowly increasing level of comfort, however, Tyler says he’s continuing to take mask wearing seriously. “I still double mask when I leave the house, and am going to continue with that for a while.”
It’s little wonder why so many people are having a hard time letting go of the social convention of outdoor mask wearing. Even if no less an authority than the CDC says it mostly isn’t necessary, after a year of untold suffering and worry, wearing (or not wearing) a mask feels like one of the few pandemic-related choices that is firmly in our hands, and not subject to the often-opaque decision-making processes of local and federal government officials.
Will there ever be a truly mask-free version of U.S. life again? Maybe, but maybe not—after all, in some East Asian countries, mask wearing was de rigueur on public transit and in other crowded places long before COVID-19 emerged as a public health threat. With time, it’s likely that Americans will grow more comfortable stepping outside without pulling a mask over their faces, but as with so many things related to the progress of the pandemic (and the social norms that have developed around it), we may just have to wait and see.