The ugly looks began a little more than a year ago.
I'd started running again as a way to stretch my apartment-cramped legs and to survey the changes to my neighborhood — the locked storefront gates, the empty parks, the streets practically devoid of any commuter traffic at all.
But even though the official New York City policy at the time was that runners didn't need to wear masks unless they were within six feet of other people, I'd started to notice the scowls and glares from other pedestrians, including those who weren't even on my side of the street. On Twitter, mutuals ranted about runners getting "too close" on sidewalks, and then about anyone having the audacity to exercise outside at all. Nextdoor was in a frenzy. Soon, it became common to read stories about strangers screaming "where is your mask?!" at runners from their cars. I started running with my Buff pulled up around my face, even when no one else was in sight.
A year later, the Biden administration has now confirmed what health experts have pretty much understood since last spring: It's safe to be outdoors without a mask on. In new guidance released Tuesday, the administration filed outdoor exercise as among the "safest" activities for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and said that neither group needs to wear a mask when doing so:
"[T]he coronavirus disperses outside, posing little risk to people who are walking alone or even swiftly passing by strangers," The Atlantic wrote in explanation earlier this month. "In fact, almost all of the documented cases of outdoor transmission have involved long conversations, or face-to-face yelling."
Still, I'm not going to lose my running mask just yet. Not because I'm "addicted" to the pandemic, or distrust the science or advice of the CDC — on the contrary, I'll be the first to explain all the ways we know running outside without a mask is safe. But I first started wearing my mask outdoors as a courtesy, a signal to my neighbors that I cared about their health and was taking precautions to keep them protected. As we begin rolling back pandemic restrictions and resuming "normal life," I'm not quite ready yet to stop sending that message.
Little has riled up Americans more during the pandemic than the do-or-don't mask question. That seems especially true now, though, as we begin to drop some of the life-or-death precautions that defined our lives over the past year. This month, many writers and epidemiologists started to call on the Biden administration to walk back outdoor mask mandates, citing the low risk of danger. Others, though, have taken these calls to a dangerous next level: On Monday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson actually encouraged his fans to harass people who they see wearing masks outside.
While I believe we don't "need" to wear masks outside, I'm also sympathetic to the trauma we've endured as a nation, a city, and as individuals. It's hard to flip from the mindset of wear a mask constantly or risk killing your grocery store clerk, to don't bother wearing a mask outside at all. Particularly when you live in a former COVID-19 hotspot, like I do — where less than a year ago, hundreds of people were dying a day just in the surrounding neighborhood — those habits can be especially hard to let go of. Masks represent a semblance of control and comfort that we'd wrestled back from the disease, a way to navigate public spaces again without the fear of strangers that had tainted every interaction early in the pandemic.
Many people remain particularly jumpy around runners. That's largely due to a "study" that went viral last spring, showing how particles trail after athletes in terrifying, gross "slipstreams," and suggesting that walkers would be in danger of catching COVID-19 up to 33 feet behind a passing runner. Even though experts quickly debunked the findings — the paper wasn't peer-reviewed, and was based on "deeply flawed" logic, Vox found — the fear of runners persisted. We now know that it would take "around 50 runners breathing heavily running past you for a person to get the infection," according to Dr. Sarah Jarvis; still, there's something viscerally nerve-wracking about a stranger huffing past you at a jog without a mask on.
I love running; it's what has kept me mentally and physically healthy through this whole ordeal. As a result, I've gotten pretty used to running in a mask over the past year; through trial-and-error, I've even found one that I don't mind exercising in, and that doesn't make my face too swampy in the summer. And if it gives even one person I pass a little more peace of mind as they wait for their second vaccine dose, or for the city to approach herd immunity, then I'll be glad to have done it.
At a point, we need to start actively reassuring people that they can drop certain precautions. Vaccines exist so we can go back to our normal lives without fear; besides, it's more important right now to "set a good example" with mask usage indoors, where we do know that face-coverings make a significant, scientifically-proven difference. But bullying people to not wear masks outdoors is dangerous, needless, and also slightly deranged. Whether you want to wear a mask outside or not is a choice that should be left entirely up to you.
Personally, I'll be continuing to wear my mask for a little longer yet, if only because I care deeply about setting others at ease. I understand that it could take a while for word of the new outdoor mask guidance to reach everyone, and I'm far more concerned about the people I'd make uncomfortable without my mask on than those who are perturbed to see me in one.
Slowly, though, as more and more people I pass start to remove their own masks, I'll follow suit. Not because I'm afraid, or because I'm allowing a few dirty looks to influence my actions again. Rather, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's to be considerate and courteous to others even at a minor inconvenience to ourselves. For me, a few more weeks of sweating behind a mask is a small price to pay.