The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The mask wars are getting crazier. It’s time to take a deep breath.

A volunteer with Pacific Beach Coalition prepares to use a grabber tool to pick up a discarded surgical mask near Pacifica Esplanade Beach on April 3, in Pacifica, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Face masks are the most visible symbol of the ways in which the covid-19 pandemic heightened the United States’ already gaping divisions. For those masks to start coming off, people across the political spectrum will have to extend more trust and charity to each other. We’re about to find out if that’s even possible.

Amazingly, as case counts have waned and vaccination rates ticked up, the debate over mask-wearing seems to have become more vitriolic, not less — though not with equal measure on both sides.

On the right, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson recently suggested that his viewers ask mask-wearers to remove their face coverings and call Child Protective Services if they see children outside with their faces covered. On the left, liberal towns such as Brookline, Mass., seem intent on continuing outdoor mask mandates despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and significant scientific evidence that they’re not needed. Skeptical looks at proponents of extreme ongoing restrictions, like Emma Green’s recent dispatch in the Atlantic, are uncharitably recast by some as attacks on vulnerable communities or distorted as criticism of individual decisions to keep masking up.

To be clear: There are plenty of good reasons for masks to remain a regular sight on our streets even as the pandemic recedes. There are people with legitimate medical reasons not to get vaccinated. The shots may not work as well for some immunocompromised people. Plenty of healthy people may decide that masks are a seasonal precaution worth taking against colds and the flu.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

But the single best way to move away from mask-wearing is to turn down the partisan temperature that has brought the issue to such a boil.

Let’s begin on the right, where, as Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine, Carlson is “training his fans to think of outdoor mask-wearing as a form of aggression against which they must lash out,” and a columnist for the Trump-leaning site American Greatness recently wrote about refusing to get vaccinated because “I dislike the people who want me to take it, and it makes them mad when they hear about my refusal.”

If the goal here is to keep fighting over the pandemic forever, these pundits have chosen their tactics well. But if what the Tucker Carlsons of the world truly want is to see as few masks as possible, there are better options than confrontation.

As mask use declines, conservatives could tend to their irritation by trusting that anyone they see still wearing one is doing so with good intentions. Not everyone walks through the world scheming for ways to drive their neighbors bonkers, after all. Even better would be to respectfully engage with the fears of their more cautious fellow citizens — to see what might give them the confidence to take their masks off.

Whether conservatives eager to get back to normal are willing to do this will be an excellent test of whether they’re in it for the restoration of society, or for the pleasures of the culture wars. History suggests the smart bet is on the latter. But it’s at least worth laying down a marker for what good-faith engagement might look like.

For people on the left who are still wearing masks outside and taking enhanced precautions, an emotional recalibration may be more difficult — and not without reason.

If conservatives find mask-wearing aesthetically offensive, liberals are not wrong to find the decision by unvaccinated people to go maskless actively aggressive. Masks work not just because they prevent the particles from someone else’s nose and mouth from entering yours, but because they keep your own exhalations and sneezes contained. If you won’t wear a mask, you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. Carelessness and selfishness kill. Unwinding the resulting resentment and fear will not be an easy or quick process. But it’s a necessary one.

That said, as more people get vaccinated, it will be helpful for even the most cautious among us to examine their own reflexes.

At earlier stages in the pandemic, I know I felt a reflexive surge of anger when I passed someone on the street who wasn’t wearing a mask, or who was slow to cover up. Now, as a healthy and fully vaccinated 36-year-old, I’m one of those people venturing outside for walks without a face-covering. I hope my neighbors assume that I’m following CDC rules, not flouting them. And even if they don’t fully trust me, I try to have confidence they’re able to trust the science behind the vaccinations they may have received or the masks they’re still choosing to wear.

I honestly don’t know if this sort of mutual de-escalation is possible. Too many Americans seem addicted to being angry at each other. The pandemic is just the latest battlefield. But it’s worth treating each other more charitably. Masked or not, we’d all be able to breathe a little deeper for it.

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