The other week, I noticed a new reminder scrawled in large chalk letters across the wall at my gym: Masks required.
Though the signage was fresh, there was nothing new about the substance of the announcement. The gym has required masks throughout the pandemic. When it’s busy, someone in a Red Cross uniform marches around to remind people to pull masks up over their noses.
I find the reminders to mask refreshing. It’s like in elementary school, when the teacher stopped by your table to make sure everyone in the group project was actually working. It’s a clear reinforcing of expectations: Want to be here? Great, under these conditions.
In Mexico City, where I live, I’ve felt insulated from the mask wars that have defined the pandemic in the U.S. Here, masking is still required almost everywhere: in grocery stores, gyms, doctor’s offices, schools, public transportation, while ordering at coffee shops. There are exceptions, but they’re few and far between. And even then, most people mask. Though not required, many people wear masks outside, while walking their dogs or even running in the park.
In fact, it often seems the only people unwilling to do their part are visitors—largely, you guessed it, Americans! In 2021, as Mexico’s vaccine rollout lagged several months behind the U.S., an organization called the Good Guest Collective plastered signs around Mexico City neighborhoods popular among foreigners with messages like “Dear guests, we are genuinely happy you’re vaccinated. Please consider many of us are not.” (Today, an estimated 63 percent of Mexicans are fully vaccinated, and 45 percent have also received a booster dose.) I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen a masked receptionist or clerk have to remind one of my dear countrymen to please wear a mask—the visitor’s response is almost always an eye-roll.
There are, of course, non-gringo outliers: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has himself refused to mask-up throughout the pandemic. But that decision hasn’t rippled into a political call to action like it might, say, in the U.S. Though masking requirements vary throughout Mexico’s 31 states (plus Mexico City), and have shifted with the different waves of the pandemic, many states currently require people to mask indoors. According to data from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland, 59 percent of Mexican residents report always using a mask in public. That’s down from 87 percent in February 2021, but still quite impressive when compared to the U.S.’s measly 16 percent. In Mexico City, 68 percent of residents say they always use a mask.
I want to be clear: The pandemic—and many parts of the government’s pandemic response—have been devastating in Mexico. While the U. S. has recently loosened travel precautions, Mexico has never required negative COVID tests for visitors to enter the country. In fact, many tourists, especially from places like New York and California, have come here during the pandemic trying to escape stricter restrictions elsewhere (beyond their resistance to mask, they have brought serious concerns about gentrification). Testing capabilities and hospital infrastructures have been stretched to the brink. In winter 2020, people stood in line for hours trying to get oxygen for sick family members. Vaccine and booster rollout has been much slower than in the U.S. (Global vaccine inequality in action: Mexico has received less than half of the vaccines it was promised through COVAX, according to Reuters, and relied heavily on vaccines from Russia and China to support its initial rollout). It’s estimated that nearly 330,000 people have died from COVID in Mexico, 1 in 387 residents. This is almost surely an undercount.
So, yes, things have been bad. But without strict mask rules and good compliance with those rules, I’m willing to bet things would have been much, much worse. I am so thankful for these rules: for myself, for the family I have here, and honestly, for the example it sets to other parts of the world (if only other parts of the world paid attention).
No one wants to mask for the rest of eternity. And I am pro returning, as much as we can, to life. I have traveled during the pandemic. I have gone to large gatherings, and even organized one myself. I make careful risk calculations, and those careful calculations have mostly resulted in a life that looks a lot like it did pre-pandemic, with one large exception. I wear a mask in the grocery store, in the gym, while traveling—anytime most of the people around me are masking, so am I. I am pro mask because I am pro trying to learn to live with the virus, in the safest possible way. And when it comes to living with the virus: Masking is low-hanging fruit, people!
Personal responsibility (which the U.S. has now almost fully adopted when it comes to masking) is a poor substitute for comprehensive public health policies. But when the businesses and other places we visit make masking the rule—not the exception—they take complex guessing games out of the equation. There’s no weighing your own comfort (I’ll probably be fine!) against your desire to the right thing (other people might not be!). Masking can feel like a miserable sacrifice when not very many people around you are doing it: like you’re one person trying to do all the work on a group project. But when everyone is, it feels satisfying. It’s not a burden or a sacrifice at all—it’s public health in action.
Personally, I am even one of those people who chooses to wear a mask outdoors. In April of this year, Mexico City lifted the recommendation to use masks in open spaces. We’ve known for a long time that the risk of outdoor transmission—especially, say, in a park—is very low. Still, when I walk outside, I usually do so with a mask on my face. I often leave it down around my chin, and pull it up when I walk by other people who are wearing masks. Some would call this hygiene theater, and they would be right. Epidemiologically speaking, it surely doesn’t make any difference. It’s meaning, for me, is symbolic: We’re still in this together.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.