On Tuesday, the CDC announced new guidelines about when people could safely go outside without wearing masks for protection against COVID. Within minutes, people relaying the news on Twitter were inaccurately describing what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said:
Mask time is over! If you’re going outside. Unless, like the majority of Americans, you’re not fully vaccinated. Or unless the place you’re going outside is crowded. Or—
Or you could just keep wearing a mask. I’m still planning to. I’m a day away from my second shot, so I’m more than two weeks away from qualifying for the CDC’s least restrictive category. But also I’m in no hurry, and I don’t see the new guidelines as especially liberating.
If this looks easier or more reassuring to you, great. Not everyone else sees it that way! And as we navigate our way back toward more normal life, it’s helpful to consider both perspectives. People are mad at one another about the changing outdoor guidance, the way they’ve been mad about so many other questions about masks since the pandemic began. But it seems as if underlying this round of conflict is a specific and mutual misunderstanding around why we’re fighting.
The CDC is siding—incompletely, perhaps—with the people who have seen the latest evidence about the low risk of outdoor transmission, and who believe it is time to stop expecting the public to wear masks outside. Scientists have concluded that it is very, very unlikely for you to catch COVID-19 in the open air. So, they say, we should focus on wearing masks only when it really counts.
Others of us would as soon stick with wearing masks, for the time being. It’s not necessarily irrational, if we insist on arming ourselves with the tools of reason to do battle; the moment-by-moment risk of transmission occurs, after all, within a larger and more complicated setting. Researchers are pretty confident they’ve worked out the basic science behind how the virus spreads, but on the science of how people can form and maintain the best public health habits, they’re fumbling in the dark. So the arguments persist: about the ongoing value of social signaling toward strangers who don’t know whether you’re vaccinated, about the possible backfiring effect of too much misguided social signaling, and on and on.
I could take one side of the argument and get bitter about it. But there are plenty of other people prepared to do that. Lurking in the background, as well-meaning science believers wrangle over best practices, are the likes of Tucker Carlson, who declared Monday night that parents whose kids wear masks outdoors should be investigated by child protective services. From the other direction, there are enraged hordes of people displacing their stored-up #Resistance anger on the suggestion that any precautions should be dialed back.
So the latest disagreements are rooted in the polluted soil of all the previous debates—with actual life-and-death stakes!—that poisoned the past year. Even among people who share a fundamental commitment to the idea of public health and an understanding that masks have been a vital measure against a deadly disease, each side can’t help but identify the other with the old, familiar bad guys in the public health war: The mask keepers are not listening to the most up-to-date science; the mask removers are rejecting masks.
But it feels as if they, or we, are talking past one another. Trapped inside the argument about public policy is an underarticulated argument about personal preference: Are you more annoyed by wearing a mask or are you more annoyed by thinking about whether to wear a mask? If the goal is to make public health less of a burden as the vaccination rates climb, it helps to understand that different people see different things as burdensome.
For some people, the goal is “Don’t make me wear a mask more than I have to.” For others, it’s “Don’t make me have to start constantly fiddling with my mask.” What seems eminently rational from one side seems foolish or pointless from the other.
I know my own point of view on the mask question. For me, there is nothing liberating about the idea of constantly taking my mask off and putting it on again. I ride the subway standing up, in an out-of-the-way spot, so I don’t have to keep track of how full the train car is getting and who might be elderly or infirm enough to need my seat. I put a mask on when I go outside, and I take it off when I come back inside my own home, and in between I have plenty of other things to think about. The CDC’s multicolored, multisituational guidance charts look like a gigantic hassle to me.
I am well-aware that other people experience this differently, and that they have been desperate for permission to take their masks off whenever they can. Those feelings are valid! Some of it is about logistics. For people who wear glasses and who have been fighting glasses fog every time they step outside for the past year, wearing a mask out of doors is an annoying imposition. On the other hand, it also depends on what “going outside” means to you—where I live, it means the first thing I do is get into an elevator. If you’re just walking out your own front door and across your lawn, it must be a lot easier to skip the mask.
Neither outlook is unreasonable. I could harp on why I find mask removal so obviously irritating—where do you put it, in your pocket? What about the collected germs?—but that wouldn’t make it obvious to other people, and it wouldn’t make me correct. The demasking side could simply point out that a mask soaked in sweat from being worn outside provides less protection indoors, where it’s needed most. If I truly cared about whether touching a used mask or wearing a sweat-soaked one counts as a dangerous activity or not, I would have looked up the latest research. I haven’t, because I don’t want to, because I don’t like thinking about my mask.
To understand how emerging guidance on masks became so controversial, listen to this recent episode of What Next.