Medical Examiner

To the People Who Tried

Endless caution over COVID-19 is exhausting. It also feels futile.

a small bonfire in which people are putting surgical masks
Young attendees toss surgical masks into a fire during a mask burning event in Boise, Idaho. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Recently at a Dunkin’ Donuts, I waited for a bagel next to a woman who wasn’t wearing a mask. At least one other maskless person came into the store while I was there. In Florida, where I was for the month, I had become used to doing these scans of the room, especially since the local mask mandate was lifted at the end of February. I would count how many people had masks below their noses, how many had no mask at all, how many had a mask made of mesh (just one total, luckily).

Advertisement

It made me feel something that I’ve been feeling for a while, as a journalist who has been tasked with interpreting and explaining so many things about the pandemic to my readers: The wrong people are heeding the calls for more caution.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I have spent a lot of time urging caution this year, based on the advice of public health experts who are also urging caution. “You should take precautions that might feel a bit outlandish,” I wrote a year ago, now, in a piece titled “Don’t Panic About the Coronavirus. Act.” Over the course of the year, those precautions have gone from working from home to choosing the right personal protective equipment to still being careful about traveling even if you’ve gotten the vaccine. Over these sad, hard months, I’ve watched so many people give up so much in the interest of everyone’s safety. I’ve watched friends stay isolated from everyone except members of their own household, even when there are ways to mitigate risks in exchange for a little more sanity. I have heard horror stories about parenting with a lack of in-person school, even as evidence suggests that schools might safely be reopened.

Advertisement

And I have come to suspect that some percentage of the population is adhering so intensely to the public health advice that they are about 90 percent of the way toward perfection—and they’re putting themselves through a ton of stress to get that last 10 percent. On the other hand, another set of the population is … doing quite a bit less, and not really worrying over the parts they aren’t doing. These are the people who would benefit from doing a little (or much) more, and they’re also the ones that don’t seem to be listening. Instead, they’re having weddings, jet-setting, burning masks. I could not imagine, for example, what the lady at the Florida Dunkin’ Donuts would think about my very earnest explainer on how and why to wear two masks. I did not ask—talking produces aerosols!—but I am confident she is not a reader.

Advertisement
Advertisement

At this point in the pandemic—and for a long time during this pandemic, honestly—it seems like some portion of the country is going full-force against public health guidance and another portion is staying very, very cautious, even at the cost of a lot of energy and mental health. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone is either gathering for spitting contests in basements or else hermetically sealed in their living rooms. Many, many people have to go to in-person jobs, for example, even though they would rather not. I know plenty of people who are fumbling their way through some kind of middle ground, taking considered risks: outdoor drinks, masked visits with family, trips for semi-essential purposes buffered by strategic quarantine periods, occasional mistakes, recommitments to doing something different next time. And yet, so many people I talk to are living at 90 percent while stressing over that last 10 percent.

Advertisement

Health guidance has asked us for so much this year. (Also: The fact that I have to refer to it as “health guidance” is part of the problem. We’ve had to get information from an inconsistent tangle of government institutions and Anthony Fauci and also health journalists and doctors who have taken it upon themselves to explain all of this and public health researchers who have done the same.) It’s not surprising that the response to that advice has been so uneven. And there certainly have been experts throughout the pandemic reminding people to just try their best. But I still question how much mileage the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to wear two masks has when across the country, politicians are lifting mask mandates altogether. It is jarring to see some people take risks with exceedingly little payoff (ordering breakfast with a bare face) while others continue to adhere to cautions with diminishingly small returns (fully vaccinated people still not hugging their grandkids—the CDC just said this is safe).

Advertisement
Advertisement

The thing that I come back to, again and again and again, is that getting the virus under control is not an unmeetable bar—other countries have done it. But it requires a public health effort that America simply has no ability to execute. We evaluate public health advice as individuals or small pods when, in order for it to really work, we’d have to act on it collectively. Being evermore careful, masked-up, and isolated surely feels morally correct. It might be soothing, and it is also likely to keep you safer. But without cooperation, it will never be enough.

Advertisement