Medical Examiner

The Peculiar Failure of the Mask Guidance

A health care worker with brows furrowed wearing a mask that says "I got my COVID-19 vaccine" and has a cartoon superhero syringe on it
A community vaccination event in Los Angeles on Wednesday. Robyn Beck/Getty Images

This past weekend I was at a motel in Colorado. Each room had its own individual door to the outside, but there was a lobby, with a reception desk and breakfast and coffee in the morning. Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Americans should wear masks indoors, my boyfriend and I put them on when we went in to pick up food. The whole weekend, out of maybe a dozen people or so, I saw only one other person wearing a mask in the lobby. (We also weren’t saints about it—we took our masks off to eat.)

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What was apparent to me in the motel lobby was: The CDC’s guidance to wear a mask indoors, even if you’re fully vaccinated, is not working. It is not working, just as the earlier guidance for unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors did not work. Just as the earlier guidance to wear a mask before we had vaccines did not work.

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The guidance isn’t working because it’s just that—national guidance, suggested “in areas of substantial or high transmission.” (According to the helpful transmission map included in that link, that means pretty much everywhere except a handful of counties in Nebraska where very few people live.) It’s up to local governments and businesses and community norms to enforce it. What the circumstances we’ve found ourselves in the past year and a half have shown is just how helpless guidances are before the forces, whether political or just human nature, that keep us from doing what we need to do to end the pandemic earlier.

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The guidance is not useless: Some people are following it! Some stores and venues and state governments are turning the guidance into mask mandates. Schools in Dallas are issuing a mandate, in defiance of a governor who banned them; so are schools in Florida. Nearly a dozen states have indoor mask mandates, though not all of them reflect the latest guidance for vaccinated people. But what this shows is how atomized our approach to masking is, how regional and micro-regional, in the face of a virus that has little regard for borders—you can cross the street from one place to another and experience an entirely different set of rules. I know when I return to New York I’ll feel shame if I don’t wear a mask in my apartment building. And it will feel extra weird knowing that just over a week before, wearing a mask had made me feel like a dweeb in a motel lobby. I’m the same person, with the same values regarding the pandemic, and yet I feel completely differently in different locations.

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This is all only a problem because, simply, masks work. They are not as good as vaccines. Vaccines are not perfect. And they could at this time use some help from masks. The maps make clear that almost everyone should be wearing one in indoor public spaces (congrats on being the exception, sparse counties in Nebraska!). It’s not a “backslide”—it’s an evidence-based adaptation to the present situation. Wearing a mask is not supposed to be a personal choice; it is supposed to be a public health tool that the public adopts. The public is, in many cases, not wearing masks. Forty states do not have mask mandates. Republicans hoping to replace Gavin Newsom are trying to add California to that list.

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It honestly makes sense to not want to wear a mask. Wearing a mask is very annoying, and it’s more annoying knowing that we have effective vaccines. And it’s arguably reasonable to not wear a mask if the group is small and everyone is vaccinated; public health experts have suggested as much in contexts like going to an office or dining with friends. Trying the compromise of asking unvaccinated people to mask failed, and now we have delta, a very contagious variant that vaccinated people can themselves spread. Hence: masks.

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I know that masking is a burden—I do not like wearing several layers of cloth over my mouth, and I resent the sentiment that it should be “no problem” to mask up, particularly in situations where it makes little sense, like outdoors. It’s even more of a burden to be masking up when other people aren’t, to be trying to contribute to a collective effort that is falling far short. And it feels like it doesn’t help anyone very much at all to be one of the only people masking in a room with lots of bare faces. The pandemic doesn’t end with some of us being super careful and others continuing on as though the CDC has not issued new guidance. Even mask mandates don’t work unless they are enforced on the micro level. In Las Vegas, where there is a mandate in place, a reporter found that clubgoers wore them in line to get in, but simply took them off once they were inside.

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One more story: After we had breakfast at the motel, my boyfriend and I went to the national park we’d come to visit. Everyone on the park shuttle wore a mask. That was also the case in the visitors centers and gift shops.

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The motel and the park were of course in the same area, in counties with similar COVID transmission levels that are “substantial” or “high.” Being in one space or another posed roughly similar risks (the bus was more crowded than the gift shop or lobby). But at the park, there was a rule: Wear a mask. An employee even stood next to the bus entrance and handed out disposable masks to anyone who didn’t have one.

The shuttle bus felt like a glimpse of how things could be. People came to the national park from all over the country, and yet there they were, wearing masks. Because they had to.

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