The Mask Battle Continues
There was a fascinating incident a few weeks ago in Florida when Ron DeSantis walked into a room of high schoolers that were masked and told them, in no uncertain terms, that they could remove them because it was time to end this “COVID theater”. As more and more states drop the mask mandates and life returns to “normal”, we will likely see this same message reverberate. People are so done with this pandemic.
I get it. I really do. It’s been a life-altering several years, and we all crave normalcy. Watching death and disease makes us really uncomfortable, and we certainly don’t like to be reminded of it every time we walk into a public space. And that’s really what this is all about: the reminder.
In sociology, we have a pretty powerful theoretical framework called symbolic interactionism. The basic tenets are that humans attach meaning and labels to just about everything, we define our reality, and groups influence this meaning in profound ways. Masks have become a symbol for so many people; when they are still on, it is a reminder the COVID is not gone. But we want so badly for it to be gone. Symbolic interactionism is so interesting because it reveals something about humans: we can change our meanings at any time if we want to. At the beginning of the pandemic, masks were scarce, and we were told not to hoard them because healthcare workers needed them. Then, as we began venturing out and more were available, they became a symbol of helping one another. But, as the pandemic dragged on, they become something else entirely.
Cue the meltdowns.
We saw them everywhere. Cell phone videos of people in grocery stores and lined up outside schools screaming about masks. We saw full-grown adults literally throwing tantrums about wearing them. Talk of “muzzling” children or “breathing problems” emerged. The longer the pandemic went on, the more the mask became a political symbol rather than its original use: protection.
We know that masks, when worn properly, help alleviate the spread of an airborne respiratory virus. The science is pretty clear on that. Asian countries that dealt with SARS have used them for years to minimize access to germs. Healthcare workers have worn them for years to protect themselves and their patients. Prior to the pandemic, no one really questioned masks.
The meaning shifted because we shifted. Everyone hates the pandemic; I doubt there is anyone out there that is not ready for all of this to be over. We have different ideas about how that needs to happen, and, just as a reminder, even the best-laid plans can be uprooted by a sneaky little virus. But we often forget that little virus and just forge ahead. That shift symbolizes another divide, particularly in the United States. Those that were ready to deny that COVID is a problem, and those that still see it as one. As our cases flatten out and we take a breath, everyone is hopeful that this is the end. For some, that means the masks need to go. Now. For many, it means that they needed to go long before now! But for another group, the masks are still part of their lives.
There are about 7 million people in the United States that are moderately to severely immunocompromised. 3% of the population. The vaccine doesn’t work as well in these folks because their immune system simply can’t produce the antibodies needed to fight the virus. They are in immediate danger from COVID; it is a life or death situation for them. A mask is a tool in their arsenal.
There are also almost 24 million children under the age of 5 in the United States. Not a single one is eligible to be vaccinated yet. While we know children are not as impacted by the effects of COVID-19, they can certainly get and transmit it to others who are. Also, children aren’t supposed to get severely ill and die, and, yet, many have with this virus.
When compared to these individuals, I have a slightly less dire reason for wearing a mask, but I still find it important. In February of 2020, my eldest child asked if he could go on a trip to Europe that his school was planning for April 2022. He was only 14 at the time, but he would be going on 17 by the time the trip rolled around. As a 17-year-old, I had the immense privilege of a Europe trip, and it was a highlight of my teen years. I have such fond memories of the journey and its rewards. I wanted nothing more than for him to have that same life-altering experience. So, we signed him up and started the rather hefty payment plan.
Then March 2020 hit.
No big deal, I thought. It’s two years from now! Of course all of this will be over by then. So, we dutifully paid money each month to prepare for the end of this pandemic and the trip of a lifetime.
Cut forward: March 2022. The trip was given the green light, and we are doing all the prep for it. We got the passport renewed. We made sure he was vaccinated and boosted. We purchased the right masks for travel to France. We’ve been checking the COVID numbers in Europe with a bit of trepidation and a lot of hope. What was it that Ted Lasso said? Oh, right. It’s the hope that kills you.
I am so hopeful that he will get to go and experience another country. He will get to use the French he’s been studying for 5 years. He will get to taste all kinds of new foods. He will see things that are thousands of years old. What an amazing experience.
But that hope is also leaving some dread in the pit of my stomach. The requirements are pretty intense. He has to have a negative PCR test two days before traveling. He has to have a negative PCR test to be allowed back into the United States. And, if any person on the tour tests positive for COVID, the entire tour must quarantine for two weeks. That’s a lot of missed school and a huge loss of money to just sit in a hotel.
So, we are a few weeks out now, and we are making some sacrifices. My two kids are wearing masks at school even as they are optional. My husband and I are wearing masks in public even as the mandate has ended. We’ve turned down invitations and public gatherings. We don’t want COVID for a myriad of reasons, but the biggest one weighing on us is this trip.
I was out running errands over the weekend and caught an eye roll from a bare-faced gentleman in my peripheral vision. He clearly didn’t think my mask was necessary. I am sure he thought it was “COVID theater” as Governor DeSantis put it. A symbol of virtue-signaling from a social justice warrior (SJW). But, for me, it is one tool that is helping me get my kiddo over to Europe. I don’t need to explain that to him, and, frankly, who wants to listen to that?
But, it’s a reminder: this is all really tough. Just be kind. If you see someone wearing a mask, what is the point of shaming them? I know we all want this to be over. And the mask is a reminder that it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean we have to be hostile to those wearing them. Perhaps they have a really good reason, like their health. Perhaps they have a less dire reason, like a Europe trip. Or, perhaps, they just don’t want to get or give COVID. It doesn’t really matter what the “why” is. For months, we’ve been told that this pandemic should now be an individual responsibility. Epidemiologists and public health officials disagree, but they are losing that PR battle. So, if it is now up to us, as individuals, to decide what to do, then what is the point of the mask-shaming?
I know the pandemic is terrible, and it weighs on us. We’d like to pretend it isn’t still happening. We want it to be over. No more talk of variants or wastewater or testing. Just forget it! And those pesky masks are a constant symbol that it is not over for everyone. Risk and reward vary for each person. Seeing it may make us mad because we don’t want the reminder, but remember that there is a person under that mask. That person is doing the best they can to navigate this as well. Just be kind.