Opinion

Make May 13 a national holiday

America needs to commemorate COVID-19. Why not "Unmasking Day"?

How to describe May 13, 2021? There was no dancing in the streets, no ticker tape parades, no sailors spontaneously kissing strangers in Times Square. For me, there were only the tiny pings of my phone's news apps as, one after another, they reported that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks or maintain social distance indoors or outdoors.

It felt seismic. A little bit scary! I read the notifications over and over again, making sure I hadn't missed a "still" before a "need to." Although I'd never had a problem with wearing masks, the CDC's surprise announcement on Thursday still had the distinct feeling of being a moment, an ending, a conclusion. "May 13 should be a national holiday," Snapchat's Peter Hamby wrote in response. CNN's What Matters newsletter described it as "the Covid version of VJ Day;" their Reliable Sources newsletter dubbed it "Unmasking Day."

I agree with the sentiment all around. Going forward, the U.S. should formalize May 13 as the symbolic end of the worst of the pandemic.

Though the CDC's announcement was unexpected, the moment was months in the making. The updated guidelines follow U.S. coronavirus cases falling to their lowest level in eight months, with many states reporting single-digit, or even zero death days. Over the past week, new cases of COVID-19 declined in 37 states and "not a single state moved in the wrong direction," Axios reports. Almost 60 percent of Americans have at least their first dose of the vaccine, and the CDC this week endorsed the Pfizer shot for children over the age of 12. Though the pandemic is by no means over — roughly 600 Americans are still dying a day, and the global situation is far less optimistic — hope has slowly and steadily grown brighter stateside. The proposal to end indoor mask wearing in America, which many experts had predicted would last for years, marked by far the most significant step yet to returning to something that looks and feels like normal life.

Talk of a COVID-19 holiday predates the mask announcement, though. Activist groups have been working since last year to promote the creation of an official day to remember the more than half a million Americans who've died of the disease. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, suggested Jan. 1 for a COVID-19 memorial day, writing that "it means that from time to time, once a year, we would stop and reflect on what we have done wrong and think about how to do it better in the future." Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), meanwhile, introduced a House resolution to make the first Monday in March "COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day," explaining that "long after our nation moves beyond this most grim episode, we will need to collectively recognize all those we lost and the aftershocks of what we experienced."

While a March date arguably makes a lot of sense for a memorial holiday, since it's the month most strongly associated with when the pandemic began in the United States, the May 13 date is even better in many respects. Veterans Day, after all, doesn't mark the beginning of World War I, but when the Armistice went into effect; VJ-Day celebrates the end of World War II, not the start. What's more, there's a kind of grim foreboding to the March date, since it recalls a time when we still didn't fully understand the scale of trauma that lay ahead of us as a nation. On the other hand, May 13 represents so much more than just the symbolic act of taking off masks and reentering the world unafraid: It also honors the health care workers and scientists who helped get us to this victorious point. It would mark the moment when the nation agreed we can once more gather together, both to mourn who we've lost and to celebrate how far we've come.

Still, for all the jubilation Thursday, May 13 is also arbitrary. The CDC did not end the pandemic just by saying it's safe to take masks off in the U.S. if vaccinated, after all. "There's not going to be a day we won. There's not going to be Pandemic End Day," stressed Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to The Washington Post. He added, "It's going to be a gradual process. There's going to be new variants." Some more cautious epidemiologists also fear that the mask removal edict could yet prove to be premature. Many businesses and offices will still require masks; many other people will still choose to wear them anyway, as is everyone's right to feel comfortable.

But barring any disastrous resurgences, May 13 will stand out on the COVID-19 timeline. When we look back on the pandemic, this might very well might be our turning point — the Day One of our "after."

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