A new dimension of social anxiety opened up last week, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention liberated the smiles, scowls and jowls of Americans with new guidance saying masks aren’t needed for those of us who are fully vaccinated.
Cities and states quickly scrambled to revise their requirements. Many lifted the mandate completely, some left the decision up to individual businesses. The District of Columbia, for example, continued to require masks on public transportation, in schools, in medical offices and in any business that requires it.
But those of us who haven’t been jabbed? Keep the masks on, please.
Riiiiight. Because all those folks who were yowling about their freedoms when they were asked to mask up before this are totally going to do it now that we’re on the honor system.
Going out and about in America right now has become one big trust fall.
“I don’t trust people,” said Grace Frias, 34, as she left a client meeting in downtown D.C. Thursday morning. “If they’re not wearing a mask, how do I know it’s because they’ve been vaccinated?”
That made me touch my mask quickly and explain to her: “I’m vaccinated. I just wear it to keep people comfortable.”
This was after I went to a grocery store wearing a mask and wondered whether my covered face means folks will now see me as an anti-vaxxer.
This is what happens when the nation’s public health relies on individuals’ moral compasses, throwing folks into episodes of snap judgments, sideways glances and smirks that might no longer be hidden behind masks.
Let’s do the math. Only 37.8% of the nation has been vaccinated. At a gas station and convenience store in rural Maryland, ZERO people around me were wearing masks. So either rural Maryland holds the land-speed record in vaccinations, or … something else is happening.
We’re now asked to measure our trust of one another at every outing, in a time of division and mistrust across the nation.
“The people who didn’t want to wear masks in the first place are usually the people who didn’t want to get the vaccine,” lamented Gabriella, 31, who is vaccinated but wore her mask as she darted into a grocery store in Riverdale, Md., grabbing last-minute flowers for a wedding.
She’s been vaccinated but kept her mask on because she doesn’t trust her fellow shoppers to do the right thing.
How about Phillip Fields, 34, who lives in Carroll County, Md., and fits sprinkler systems in buildings all over the region?
He had his gaiter mask, printed with an American flag, around his neck as he took a smoke break outside.
“No, ma’am,” Fields said. “I am not vaccinated and neither is my wife. We’re on opposite sides of this. I’m not worried at all about getting sick. Been tested four times. Negative every time. But she’s real worried about getting sick. Makes me put my mask on whenever we go out.”
But if he’s not with his wife or on the job, he’s not going to wear it, he said.
You can trust Mary, at that convenience store in Thurmont, way up in rural Maryland near Camp David.
She’s got a wide, friendly smile, is fully vaccinated and is thrilled that she doesn’t have to wear a mask anymore.
“I was a senior when this started,” the 19-year-old said. “So I just started working a lot, right away. Been working through all of it.”
She missed prom and graduation, had a few ugly incidents at the convenience store in previous months when folks refused to wear masks, and her face started breaking out from all the hours she spent with it covered up.
“It is what it is,” said Mary, who didn’t think her bosses would approve of her talking to me, so she asked that I not use her last name. “It’s about half and half right now, people wearing or not wearing masks.”
(I looked around. No one – besides me – was wearing a mask.)
She shrugged. “You’ve just gotta trust ‘em.”
Gabriella, whose mask matched her wedding-guest attire, a blush maxi dress, said she’s going to keep wearing a mask to encourage the unvaccinated to keep wearing them, too.
Frias has a similar take.
She took her mask off to sip an iced coffee while walking down an eerily unpopulated stretch in D.C. this week, showing off the bubble-gum-pink lipstick the world hadn’t seen for months.
Even though she’s been vaccinated, she’s keeping her mask on when she’s around others. For a specific reason.
“My kids,” she said. They’re 1 and 9 – too young to get vaccinated.
“They have to keep wearing them, so I’m going to keep wearing them to set an example.” She doesn’t trust them to keep their masks onif she doesn’t wear one.
Then I talked to a grandmother in Maryland who was running home with ice cream for the grandkids. She didn’t want it to melt, so she didn’t have time for a long chat. But she said she completely trusts people to be responsible.
I marveled at that trust. And I wonder if that’s something we’re losing in America – our trust in each other to do the right thing.
I’d like to think we can get that back someday. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep wearing my mask.