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The norms on mask-wearing need to shift

A meditation on post-covid behavior

Youths kiss on the promenade in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on Monday after authorities announced that masks were no longer needed outside. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me confess that I hate wearing a mask. It is not because of government mandates or covid-19 skepticism; the science on mask-wearing in indoor, poorly ventilated spaces is clear. I also wear glasses, however, and even the best masks inevitably lead to some fogging up of my lenses. I really prefer being able to see if I’m out in the world.

Since April of last year, my default has been to not wear a mask when outside walking my dog. Of course, if anyone started approaching me, I would immediately mask up (or, if I forgot to bring one, get the heck out of the other person’s way). Experts knew early on that the risk of catching the coronavirus from brief outside interactions was rare. Mostly, I was putting the mask on to alleviate the concerns of my Massachusetts neighbors.

Another confession: I cannot shake the hygiene theater impulse. It was clear last summer that the coronavirus was highly unlikely to spread via fomites. This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally acknowledged that catching the coronavirus via contaminated surfaces was unlikely and that costly “deep cleaning” was no longer necessary.

Still, when I go to the supermarket, do I wipe down the handle to my shopping cart? Yes, yes I do. I am embarrassed to say it makes me feel better even though I know that it does not appreciably affect my chances of contracting the disease.

I bring these behavioral quirks up because the United States is either approaching or has gone past the point where mask-wearing outside is unnecessary. Zeynep Tufekci has been banging this drum for quite some time. Last week, Slate’s Shannon Palus wrote, “now, as we’ve come to know more about the virus, as vaccinations are ramping up, and as we’re trying to figure out how to live with some level of COVID in a sustainable way, masking up outside when you’re at most briefly crossing paths with people is starting to feel barely understandable.”

Variations of this point have also been made this week by the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, Reason’s Robby Soave and the New York Times’ David Leonhardt. Doctors in Massachusetts are acknowledging it.

Even if one is wary about the risks right now, those risks will abate considerably over the next month. More than half of all eligible Americans have received at least one coronavirus vaccination shot, which means that by the end of May more than half of all Americans will be fully vaccinated. A growing body of evidence suggests that fully vaccinated Americans are highly unlikely vectors for transmitting the disease. This means the need for mask-wearing should be reduced even further.

And yet, just as mask-wearing was politicized last year, not wearing masks will be politicized this year. Because I am quite sure I am not the only person to act in a less-than-fully rational way when it comes to this pandemic. Add in the power of social norms and the mask-wearing habit looks tougher to change.

What to do? First, recognize that it will take some time to adjust. Brown University’s Ashish Jha acknowledged to Leonhardt that, even though he had been fully vaccinated by the end of February, he had been reluctant to meet a vaccinated friend for drinks without a mask. “It was hard — psychologically hard — for me,” said Jha, a physician. But in the end, he did! My wife, who has been fully vaccinated for a month, has gone through the same process.

True conservatives — who, let’s be honest, are the ones more likely to push for ending mask mandates — should recognize the idea that social change is best when it proceeds slowly. So they should let those still reticent about giving up their masks to do so of their own accord. No mask-shaming in either direction right now!

Just let time work its magic. As more and more vaccinated people feel comfortable going maskless outside, the social norm of putting on a mask will subside slowly, then suddenly.

Finally, Americans should recognize this for the champagne problem that it is. Encourage the United States to export the vaccine to hard-hit areas of the globe as soon as humanly possible. Get the rest of the world in a position to have these same debates sooner and not later.