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Even after Singapore lifts restrictions, residents stick to their masks

Pedestrians cross a road in the business district in Singapore on the day a government outdoor mask requirement was lifted. (Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg News)

SINGAPORE — Throughout the pandemic, Singaporean design student Andi Naszeri kept his mask practically glued to his nose. Last week, when the 22-year-old heard that the government was eliminating its outdoor mask mandate, he stepped outside barefaced and thrilled. Then he looked around.

“I felt like I was the only person not wearing one.”

For two years, Singaporeans have been forced to wear masks inside and out or face fines and jail time. But on Tuesday, after the country lifted an outdoor mask mandate that had been in place continuously since April 2020, a majority of people kept their masks firmly on.

According to the local Straits Times newspaper, a whopping 90 percent of residents seen on the streets, sidewalks and beaches of the tropical Southeast Asian country were still wearing masks.

Otters are taking over Singapore

The reaction comes as Singapore leads one of the region’s boldest attempts at living with covid. Even as Hong Kong and China implement draconian lockdowns to try to stamp out the virus, Singapore, a country that vaccinated its population early and thoroughly, is opening up.

Singapore was the first Asian country to abandon a zero-covid policy, and its path is being closely watched by other countries in the region attempting to reopen.

The looser restrictions mark a turnaround for the island nation, which closed its borders at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and tracked its residents’ movements around the city using a mandatory cellphone application. The strict measures kept covid out while the country reached one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, with 95 percent of eligible adults immunized.

Restrictions on fully vaccinated visitors were also lifted last week. Fully vaccinated people can travel to Singapore without quarantine or testing on arrival. Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Malaysia, are lifting some restrictions, too.

But unlike in the West, where loosened restrictions were met with “freedom day” celebrations and maskless parties, Singaporeans have been reluctant to shed precautions, even as the government reassures them that outdoor transmission risks are low.

“I still don’t feel very safe,” said Sherry Hoi, 33, wearing a purple mask fastened with a matching chain. “I work in a school setting, I can’t afford to fall ill.” She was dismayed the government lifted restrictions before the preschool students she teaches were offered vaccinations.

Singaporeans’ reluctance to give up their masks is partially caused by concern for more vulnerable members of society. The country’s leaders have long stressed the well-being of the community over individual freedoms.

“It’s better to stay safe than to get covid,” said Xingyi Teng, a 20-year-old student who lives with her nonagenarian grandparents. Even as temperatures reached 93 degrees one afternoon, her black nylon mask stayed on as she walked laps around the park. “If you stay safe, you keep them safe, too.”

Navigating life in a densely populated city encourages the risk aversion seen in Singapore, experts say.

“Cultures that have faced chronic threats, from Mother Nature, natural disasters, conflict on one’s soil, or population density, like in Singapore, require stricter rules for people to coordinate to survive,” said Michele Gelfand, a cross-cultural psychologist at Stanford University who studies the way culture has affected covid responses around the world.

Gelfand found that by October 2020, countries with “tight” cultures, where rule-following is paramount to survival, had a covid-19 death rate that was nearly nine times lower than countries with “loose” cultures, where risk-taking is more prevalent.

When norms shift, tighter cultures take longer to adjust, as people test the waters before making any big changes, she said.

“In Singapore, etiquette is to wait for someone else to take the leap. If they see there is no general change in norms, a lot of people will not take that leap,” Tan Poh Lin, a demography researcher at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

To acclimate to the new normal, some are taking baby steps.

Tu Le, a 36-year-old sales manager at Meta, waited until she was walking her son home from school to take off her mask for the first time. Alone in a park, she pulled her mask off and took a deep breath.

“It feels good to smell the trees,” she said.