The ‘Mask Optional’ Phase Of The Pandemic Is Going To Be Rough For Rule-Followers

Fifteen months into the pandemic, it’s painfully clear that the debate over following the COVID-19 “rules” has only made us more polarized as Americans.

While maskless Florida protesters danced through the aisles of Target ― and plenty more defied social distancing guidelines by vacationing and partying ― some of us remain fiercely dedicated to wearing our face masks and following the dictates of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

Even now, many otherwise science-believing Americans are loath to let go of their masks and some of the pandemic rules and restrictions. New York Times senior reporter David Leonhardt called it “extreme COVID caution.” Earlier this month, Atlantic staff writer Emma Green questioned people’s overprotectiveness in an article headlined “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown.”

“Lurking among the jubilant Americans venturing back out to bars and planning their summer-wedding travel is a different group: liberals who aren’t quite ready to let go of pandemic restrictions,” Green wrote. “For this subset, diligence against COVID-19 remains an expression of political identity — even when that means overestimating the disease’s risks or setting limits far more strict than what public-health guidelines permit.”

In a response piece, Vice writer Shayla Love argued that the Atlantic story failed to capture the full emotional complexity of entering the “masks optional” phase of the pandemic: People aren’t “addicted” to wearing masks and following the rules — they’re traumatized from the mental and emotional toll of the last year and acting on that.

“After what many have been through — death, grief, isolation, stress, anxiety, unemployment, trauma — people are going to have some feelings around transitioning back to a less cautious way of life,” she wrote.

“This doesn’t mean that they reject the CDC guidelines or are wielding progressivism as a weapon. It means some people need a little extra time to put their masks away as they stroll around the park ― and they should take it.”

“I trust the scientists to make decisions that are healthy for the public, but it’s more about the emotional whiplash for me … It’s jarring.”

– Cailin Lindsay, a stage manager and Starbucks barista in Chicago

People who wear masks aren’t necessarily natural-born rule followers, but they’ve decided, for a variety of reasons ― personal welfare, their family’s health or just a desire to get the virus contained ― that the benefit of following restrictive guidelines outweighs the costs.

They’ve held to that for more than a year. Now that the CDC has revisited its guidelines ― if you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you can mostly go ahead and stop wearing your mask and social distancing ― many people are struggling to adjust.

That’s true for Cailin Lindsay, a stage manager and Starbucks barista in Chicago.

“I trust the scientists to make decisions that are healthy for the public, but it’s more about the emotional whiplash for me,” she told HuffPost.

“It’s been hammered into us for 15 months that masks are a necessity and a sign of common decency, so to now have that reversed with only 37.6% of the population fully vaccinated in my state, it feels a bit like having the rug pulled out from under me,” she said. “It’s jarring.”

Lindsay worries about people who haven’t been able to get the vaccine yet that want it as well as those who are immunocompromised and don’t know how well the vaccine will actually protect them.

“Now those communities will be more at risk since anti-vaxxers can go maskless with no one checking their status and with no more repercussions,” she said.

Lindsay admits she never felt stifled or constricted under the rules; if anything, wearing a mask gave her a “shred of comfort” and a sense of protection while working at a busy Starbucks location.

“I’ve been spending my working hours having to hound customers over and over again about paying attention to the 6-foot markers on the floor or keeping their faces fully covered as they waited for their drinks,” she said.

Now she’s stuck in a position many rule-abiding, mask-wearing Americans are finding themselves in post-CDC mask revisal: How do you encourage others to stay cognizant of the spread of new COVID-19 strains when the nation’s top health protection agency has eased up on the guidelines?

If you’ve spent the last year or so trying to enforce mask-wearing among family and friends, is it time to leave well enough alone?

Why So Many Of Us Played Pandemic Hall Monitor In The First Place

Lest we forget (though how could we?), prior to the development of the coronavirus vaccines, mask-wearing was pretty much the only protection we had against the virus. Following the rules ― and gently enforcing said rules among hesitant loved ones ― kept most of us safe for more than a year.

It’s understandable that people are struggling to move on, said Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist in Northport, New York.

“Our attachment to enforcing rules has beens a means of establishing some sense of normalcy during all this,” Stoycheva told HuffPost. “We hoped everyone would follow the guidelines so our brains didn’t feel overburdened with a million new small decisions a day on how to stay safe.”

“They weren’t ‘small’ things when you considered the possible repercussions: our safety and survival,” she said.

Even the most tolerant, easygoing among us― and people who generally recognize that casting judgment isn’t worth the time and energy unless you’re directly affected ― got pulled into pandemic-shaming.

“COVID flipped the idea that people’s actions don’t usually affect us on its head entirely,” said Sarah Spencer Northey, a therapist in Washington, D.C. “We were told that what other people do does affect us: That someone could kill us just by sharing air.”

In this context, it was easy to become the judge-y type and monitor strangers at the grocery store with a careful eye.

After a year of following the CDC guidelines, wanting to enforce the COVID ‘rules’ is completely understandable, experts say. 

It also didn’t help that the guidelines on mask-wearing have been inconsistent at best right from the start.

Mixed messaging from political leadership and the scientific community on proper precautions made mask-wearing appear up for political debate, which it never should have been, said Shane G. Owens, a behavioral and cognitive psychologist in Commack, New York.

“Anxiety is probably the main reason people feel the need to control other’s behavior,” he said. “The media, experts and politicians — despite good intentions — fueled that need. The often-repeated phrase ‘We’re all in this together’ sounded like a license to police others’ behavior.”

Overnight, mask-wearing (and now, getting vaccinated) took on political dimensions. A survey from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 30% of conservatives say they will “definitely not” get the COVID-19 vaccine, the highest resistance rate among all groups surveyed. If you factor all that in, there might be some “sticking it to the conservatives” at play when it comes to continued mask-wearing and shaming.

Why Many Of Us Feel Compelled To Enforce ‘The Rules’

For starters, a maskless person on the street is a mystery now: They may be vaccinated, but they also may have decided to forgo the vaccine and never adhered to mask guidelines to begin with.

The fact that people who refused to wear masks all along are now seemingly “on the side of science” upsets some people’s sense of fairness.

“People’s sense of what’s fair leads them to want to punish others who break rules or norms that the group is meant to abide by,” said Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist and professor at the Wharton School and author of the new best-selling book “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”

“Economists often use a game called the ultimatum game to study this and demonstrate how delighted we are to punish other people when they aren’t generous, even at the expense of our own earnings,” she said. “Economists and psychologists who study cooperation often argue that it’s evolutionarily adaptive for … humans in collective societies to punish anyone who breaks rules or betrays the herd in some way.”

For some, the fact that people who refused to wear masks all along are now seemingly “on the side of science” upsets their sense of fairness. 

For some, the fact that people who refused to wear masks all along are now seemingly “on the side of science” upsets their sense of fairness. 

Politics and sticking it to anti-maskers generally aren’t the primary motives for mask-pushing, though. Many people’s wariness about lifting some of the precautionary measures for fighting COVID-19 is purely about their anxiety and concern for their loved ones.

Gabriella Haklar, a part-time restaurant worker, is the mom of two young children. Since the kids can’t get vaccinated yet, she’s hyper-aware of the risks involved every time they go out and mingle among the maskless (and possibly vaccine-less).

Haklar said her kids are the reason she’s been so vigilant in enforcing mask-wearing among friends and family who’ve come to visit since the pandemic began. (The first time the family decided to meet up with Haklar’s parents after months of social distancing, she found out her dad had taken an Uber the night before and had to cancel the meetup: “My dad told us and was super remorseful but it was a hard situation,” she said.)

“As a parent to young children, they are the reason I am strict and why I remind people to distance or wear masks,” she said. “We do see family now, but they’ve been careful as well. I always say my almost four-year-old son can wear his mask for hours on end ― if he can do it, so can any adult.”

How To Manage Your Feelings In The ‘Mask Optional’ Stage Of The Pandemic

Regardless of the reasons we felt or still feel compelled to stress mask usage, it won’t be an easy habit to break. (Of course, there’s entirely no need to break the habit of wearing a mask post-vaccine, if that’s your safety preference.)

Social norms, once they’ve become locked in to some extent, are really challenging to reverse, said Syon Bhanot, a behavioral scientist and associate professor of economics at Swarthmore College.

People who are struggling to adjust often live in communities where masking has genuinely become a social norm: Not only does everyone do it, but everyone expects others to do it. (Case in point: Trader Joe’s locations in liberal-leaning Los Angeles have lifted their store mask mandate ― but their clientele is still masking up en masse.)

“It’s not going to be like flipping a light switch for these communities,” Bhanot said. “When you have this element of social expectation on top of a common behavior, it can be a very powerful behavioral force: You not only feel like you want to follow the crowd’s behavior, but you also don’t want to be judged negatively by the same crowd.”

Bhanot is not at all surprised that many communities will need time for norms to reset. He said many people think: “Masking up has helped keep me and my community safe all this time; what’s the harm in keeping it going for a little while longer until we all feel a bit more comfortable and confident?”

If you still feel more comfortable wearing a mask even post-vaccine, wear it. "I think for the rest of the year we might consider that people just need to readjust in their own time,” Northey said.

If you still feel more comfortable wearing a mask even post-vaccine, wear it. “I think for the rest of the year we might consider that people just need to readjust in their own time,” Northey said.

To get to that more comfortable, confident place, Northey, the therapist, tells people to be gentle with themselves and each other.

“Given how shaken so many are, I think a lot of us actually meet the criteria for an Adjustment Disorder diagnosis,” Northey said. “With this pandemic, we’ve seen an increased reports of depression, anxiety and problematic behaviors.”

Monitor your behavior in the next few months, Northey suggested. If you’re still feeling and acting like it’s 2020 six months from now, you might want to consider looking into that response more deeply.

“But overall, I think for the rest of the year we might consider that people just need to readjust in their own time,” Northey said.

As for people who are more than comfortable kissing COVID-19 restrictions goodbye ― sans mask, naturally― it’s important to have compassion for those who aren’t quite there yet.

They’ll likely get there, but bullishly telling them “go ahead and stay inside for the rest of your life, I’m going out,” as many do on Twitter when people say they’re firmly still pro-mask, isn’t going to help.

“I think the most important thing is to have empathy for others and respect their decision-making process,” Bhanot said. “This year has been hard on everyone, and as we transition to a new world, I think it is helpful to reconnect a bit with our own kindness and humanity.”

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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