The post-COVID social code

Navigating what we can do versus what we should do

A curtsey.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

After a long and scary pandemic year, authorities in the college town where I live last week allowed the local mask mandate to expire. This was fine with me: My wife and I both have been fully vaccinated for weeks, and so have most of our friends and neighbors. Hospitalizations and new case rates in our community have declined to a bare minimum, which is great news. While I've never been one to feel like a mask requirement is an imposition on my freedom — it was a sensible and necessary effort to save lives while COVID-19 raged throughout the country — I am also grateful not have to stumble around half-blind in public, trying to make out the world through fogged glasses.

But sometimes I still wear a mask anyway.

While the era of the mandate is ending, both in my community and across America, the era of mask etiquette is just beginning. Relieved of the bright-line obligation to cover our faces every time we leave the house — at least if you're vaccinated — many Americans are now navigating and creating a new, mostly unwritten code of conduct about when to wear a mask. As vaccination rates increase across the country, that code will continue to evolve.

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"I think it's become a habit," a Virginia state politician told The Washington Post last month. "I'm fully vaccinated. My family is fully vaccinated. But I also I err on the side of caution, and I ask people what they're comfortable with."

We're making it up as we go. At this point, I feel comfortable going maskless whenever I appear in public, but there are times when I still cover up. Sometimes my family's choices involve residual health concerns; we have immunocompromised friends who may still be at risk of illness, despite being vaccinated. Other times, it's about respect: A few local businesses and institutions are still asking customers to wear a mask inside the premises, so we comply. It's no big deal. Often, we just try to read the room, doing our best to sense — and even explicitly ask — the preferences of the people around us.

Some smart people might find this approach silly. The Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney last month declared that the "pandemic is over" and urged Americans to act accordingly by throwing off the shackles of lockdowns and mandates. He adopted a more-in-sadness-than-in-anger tone toward those who would choose otherwise.

"Some will choose to stay quarantined or even keep wearing masks outdoors," he wrote. "That's sad, but it's their right."

That doesn't seem quite fair. Mask-wearing was a survival tactic in the face of a deadly challenge. Human history tells us that those kinds of habits, once adopted, are not so easily shed. Our bodies tend to pack on pounds easily because humankind long lived with scarcity — getting fat was an evolutionary response that helped people get through the lean times, literally. The handshake was originally a way for two strangers to ensure the other wasn't carrying a weapon. Anybody who grew up around survivors of the Great Depression can speak to that generation's lifelong habits of frugality. In our own century, the practice of mask-wearing in East Asian communities persisted for years following outbreaks of SARS and bird flu in 2002 and 2006, respectively. Anybody who expects all vaccinated Americans to remove their masks immediately and permanently probably is underestimating human nature.

Ideology is a complicating factor in all of this. After a year of watching Donald Trump and his followers practice a possibly deadly form of COVID denialism, gathering at rallies where they refused to take precautions of any sort, some folks on the left side of the political spectrum worry that going maskless signifies a right-leaning perspective. To those people, I would suggest you do a better job of showing your anti-Trumpism not by wearing a mask regardless of the situation, but by following the advice and guidance of scientists and public health authorities regardless of what the ex-president does.

My personal rule: Just try not to be a jerk.

Over Memorial Day weekend, after the local mandate had expired, I went to work out at a public gym. I carried a surgical mask in my hand, but when I entered I saw that most of the people working up a sweat had their faces uncovered. (That included most of the working staff that I could identify.) When I got to the exercise machines, there was an older woman — also maskless — occupying one just two feet away from the equipment I wanted to use. I asked if she was comfortable with me working out next to her. She was. The encounter took 20 seconds.

Was this the best solution? Was I fixing a problem that didn't need to be solved? Was the moment simply an act of virtue signaling? I honestly don't know.

But I do know American discourse is so centered around personal rights that we too often focus on what we can do instead of what we should do. As adults, we should be capable of balancing our rights and wants with the needs and desires of the people around us. Living in a community — as most of us do — requires us to constantly calculate and recalculate how to achieve that balance. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge of human interaction. That will be especially true, after a year of isolation, as we learn how to be around each other again.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.