On Thursday, May 13, 2021, millions of Americans got the message they’d long waited to hear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance stating that “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” The announcement evokes a sort of end-of-the-movie scenario, in which the world goes from gray to vivid Technicolor as the general public receives the news. The sun pops out from behind the clouds and everyone takes off their face masks in unison, tossing them in the air as if we’ve all just graduated. Roll credits!
I know that this is a positive development, if one possibly aimed at making getting the vaccine all the more enticing to holdouts. But to borrow a phrase from RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Valentina, who famously refused to doff her bejeweled face cover for a lip sync to Ariana Grande’s “Greedy” in season 9? I’d like to keep it on, please. I am going to keep wearing my mask. And if you'd prefer I didn't, because it makes you uncomfortable for whatever reason, I'm asking you to keep those thoughts to yourself.
Some people continue to act like another person’s choice to wear a mask is as offensive as flipping everyone the bird in church. Since March of last year, essential workers who were required to ask others to follow in-store mask rules have been screamed at, assaulted and in one horrific instance, killed (in a self-recorded May 2021 video, former child actor Ricky Schroder berated Costco employees for enforcing the store's mask policy, calling for a boycott). Scorn over having to wear one is often tied to uniquely American ideas about personal freedom, or a viewpoint that conflates public health policy to be a matter of politics. But there is no current mandate against wearing masks, so it is my turn to exercise my freedom, and for you to respect that.
Here is what I won’t be doing: Going up to other people and asking them to wear a mask, too. I’ll continue to respect the CDC’s advice, historically inconsistent as it may be—and besides, this pandemic was a deep reminder that I can only control my own behavior. Will I wear a mask in a park with my friends from now on? Probably not. In a crowded street festival? Most likely. While grocery shopping? You betcha.
The thing is, every single one of us is wholly making up our own set of COVID-19-related rules as we slowly unfold from the pandemic’s restrictions. While they may be in accordance with—or in direct defiance of—those made by public health officials, school systems, and local governments, vast swaths of gray area exist beyond that. Choose-your-own adventure scenarios abound. If your town has fully reopened and the local tavern is seating the barefaced masses to capacity, whether you choose to dine in is entirely up to you at this point. But for people like myself, the reopening anxiety is real. Here’s a few reasons why you won’t be seeing the bottom half of my face for the foreseeable future.
I didn’t get sick once in the past year that I’ve worn a mask. Nary a cold. My devoted uptick in hand washing is also to thank, as is the privilege of being able to work from home, but my trusty droplet shield was a game-changer. For many who grew up in East Asian countries such as South Korea, masking up for flu season has been the norm for decades. I’m very into it.
I still want to protect other people from my germs, generally. The “normal” I’ll return to involves a 35-minute rush hour subway commute, in which I contort into a human Jenga piece so I can board a narrow tube packed with upwards of 80 strangers (jealous?). When I inevitably do catch a bug of some sort, why not mask up and avoid the chance of passing it on to others? This harms no one. If I can let a man with a giant snake draped around his neck ride the Q train for five stops without commentary, you can easily do the same when I board wearing a small piece of fabric on my face.
I’m still recovering from a traumatic situation. Research suggests that a lot of us are, to varying degrees, and coping as best we know how. I’m delighted to be fully vaccinated, but my young child can’t be, and his vulnerability to the illness still scares me. I’ve seen what it does; I’m among the hundreds of thousands of Americans who said goodbye to a loved one with COVID-19—my partner’s mother—over a group FaceTime, a nurse’s blue-gloved thumb partly covering the lens of the hospital's iPad. Sometimes I’ll be doing something, like washing dishes, and it re-hits me; I remember how the whir of life support machines soundtracked three generations of families’ teary assurances that she could let go. Stories of supposedly vaccinated people becoming infected are very rare, but if I can help prevent even one person from being in that situation—nurses, included—you better believe I’m doing it.
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