Last weekend, I spotted something curious in my local park: hordes of New Yorkers diligently wearing masks in the early summer sunshine.
This would not have looked odd two weeks ago, as New York is one place where the population (eventually) embraced indoor and outdoor mask-wearing with fervour. But last week the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared that fully vaccinated people could shed masks in any setting, as long as permitted by local laws. New York state then dropped its mask mandate for the vaccinated in most public spaces.
Almost everyone I know above the age of 16 is “double jabbed” and kids over the age of 12 are now getting shots too, though New York City says only 49 per cent of adults have had two shots so far.
Yet most people in the street are still voluntarily sporting masks. So too in shops and restaurants. And when I did a recent straw poll among friends at a Sunday brunch, there was only one guest who proudly declared that he had stopped wearing a mask outside — to “normalise” society, he said.
Everyone else was clinging to those pieces of fabric in some form. “I am just not ready to go out without a mask — not yet,” declared one guest who works in television.
Why? Confusion about the intersection of federal and state rules may partly explain this. Some states have formally adopted the new CDC guidelines; others have not. Some retailers, such as Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s, have dropped mask mandates, though may “request” unvaccinated customers still wear them; others retain their mandates.
Meanwhile, the national nurses’ union recently took the rare step of asking people to ignore the message from the CDC. “Now is not the time to relax protective measures,” said Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United. And when The New York Times did an informal survey of epidemiologists, only 5 per cent predicted that masks would be unnecessary by summer. Most expected mask-wearing to remain in force, at least for inside events, for another year (which may suggest broader opposition to the CDC guidelines too).
But medical risks are not the only factor. Anthropologists have long argued, initially on the basis of research done in Asia around epidemics such as Sars, that wearing a mask during a pandemic is beneficial not just because it can physically stop the movement of germs, but also because masks are a potent social ritual and symbol.
On an individual level, the practice of donning a mask is a psychological prompt about the need to change behaviour. In a group setting, that mask signals allegiance to a set of shared civic values and responsibilities. During the Trump era, mask-wearing became a political symbol too: because many Trump supporters refused to wear them, embracing the fabric seemed to signal support for more progressive, liberal values.
Now, of course, the politics have changed; it is US president Joe Biden’s own CDC that has said masks are not needed. But the other psychological issues have not disappeared. Wearing a mask is still a gesture that makes nervous people feel a little more secure. It also feels like a token of respect towards the wider group, given that it is impossible to know who else is vaccinated — or who else is feeling scared.
“I’m vaccinated and not wearing a mask anymore,” tweeted Patrick Chovanec, economic adviser for Silvercrest Asset Management. But he added: “I’m patient with people who still wear them. Maybe they don’t have their 2nd shot. Maybe they have a health condition. Maybe it’s habit. Or they just need time to become more confident.”
This sympathy for the masked may sound bizarre for people living in places that were slow to embrace voluntary mask-wearing, such as the UK. And I daresay that New Yorkers’ reluctance to shed their masks will slowly vanish when vaccination rates rise, more people go mask-free — and summer temperatures make face coverings feel stifling.
But in the meantime, there are two conclusions we can draw. First, it shows how malleable cultural patterns can sometimes be. A year ago I, like many people, assumed that individualistic New Yorkers would find it hard to embrace masks because the practice was associated with collectivist societies, such as those in parts of Asia. I was wrong.
Second, I suspect the reason New Yorkers initially adopted those masks, against expectations, reflected the fact that government messaging not only conveyed a sense of shame around non-compliance but also an impression (or illusion) of individual agency.
New Yorkers came to believe that mask-wearing was something that anyone could do to reduce risk — for themselves and others. It empowered them, offering a way to take back a little control in confusing and terrifying times.
That is why it feels almost unnerving to stop now. There is a lesson here: if governments want to nudge people into better behaviour, regarding, say, climate change, it pays to keep the message simple and, most crucially, encourage individuals to feel empowered to act. We would do well to remember that, long after the masks have gone in the bin.
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