Commentary: New Yorkers defy advice and keep their masks on
NEW YORK CITY: Last weekend I spotted something curious in my local park: hordes of New Yorkers diligently wearing masks in the early summer sun.
It wouldn’t have seemed strange two weeks ago, as New York is a place where people have (finally) embraced wearing indoor and outdoor masks with fervor.
But last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said fully vaccinated people can throw masks in any setting, as long as local laws allow. New York State then abandoned its mandate to mask the vaccinated in most public spaces.
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Almost everyone I know above 16 is ‘double-stitched’ and children over 12 now get vaccines too, although New York City says only 49% of adults have had two. shots so far.
Yet most of the people on the streets still wear masks on purpose. Likewise in stores and restaurants. And when I did a recent straw poll among friends at a Sunday brunch, there was only one guest who proudly said he stopped wearing a mask outside – for “Normalize” society, he said.
Everyone was clinging to these pieces of fabric in one form or another. “I’m just not ready to go out without a mask – not yet,” said a guest who works on television.
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TOO TT TO PUT ON THE MASKS?
Why? The confusion about the intersection of federal and state rules may partly explain this.
Some states have formally adopted the new CDC guidelines; others don’t. Some retailers, such as Walmart, Costco, and Trader Joe’s, have ditched mask warrants, although they can “request” that unvaccinated customers still wear them; others retain their mandate.
Meanwhile, the National Nurses Union recently took the rare step of asking people to ignore the CDC’s message.
“Now is not the time to relax protective measures,” said Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United. And when The New York Times conducted an informal survey of epidemiologists, only 5% predicted masks would be unnecessary by the summer.
Most expected mask wear to remain in effect, at least for indoor events, for another year (which may also suggest broader opposition to CDC guidelines).
But medical risks aren’t the only factor.
Anthropologists have long argued, initially based on research conducted in Asia around epidemics such as SARS, that wearing a mask during a pandemic is beneficial not only because it can physically stop the movement of germs, but also because the masks are a powerful social ritual. and symbol.
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On an individual level, the practice of wearing a mask is a psychological incentive to the need to change behavior.
In a group context, this mask signals allegiance to a set of shared civic values and responsibilities.
During Trump’s day, wearing the mask also became a political symbol: because many Trump supporters refused to wear it, embracing the fabric seemed to signal support for more progressive and liberal values.
Now, of course, the policy has changed; It was US President Joe Biden’s CDC that said the masks were not needed.
(Are COVID-19 vaccines still effective against the newer variants? And could these increase the risk of reinfection? Listen to the full conversation with Professors David Matchar and Gavin Smith on the Heart of the Matter podcast of the ‘CNA.)
DETERMINING TO STOP NOW
But the other psychological problems did not go away. Wearing a mask remains a gesture that reassures nervous people a little.
It also sounds like a token of respect for the group as a whole, given that it’s impossible to know who else is vaccinated – or who else is afraid.
“I am vaccinated and I no longer wear a mask,” tweeted Patrick Chovanec, economic advisor to Silvercrest Asset Management. But he added, “I’m patient with the people who still wear them. Maybe they don’t have their 2nd shot. Maybe they have a health problem. It may be the habit. Or they just need time to become more confident.
This sympathy for masked people may seem bizarre to people living in places that were slow to adopt voluntary mask-wearing, such as the UK.
And I dare say that the reluctance of New Yorkers to get rid of their masks will slowly wane as vaccination rates rise, more people do not wear masks – and summer temperatures make face coverings. stifling.
In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.
But in the meantime, we can draw two conclusions.
First, it shows how malleable cultural models can sometimes be. A year ago, like many people, I speculated that individualistic New Yorkers would have a hard time embracing masks because the practice was associated with collectivist societies, like those in parts of Asia. I was wrong.
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Second, I suspect that the reason New Yorkers initially adopted these masks, against expectations, reflected the fact that government messages conveyed not only a sense of shame around non-compliance, but also an impression ( or an illusion) of individual agency.
New Yorkers came to believe that wearing a mask was something anyone could do to reduce risk – to themselves and to others. It empowered them, offering them a way to regain some control in confusing and terrifying times.
That’s why it’s almost annoying to stop now. There is a lesson here: if governments want to inspire people to behave better, regarding, for example, climate change, it helps to keep the message simple and, most importantly, to encourage people to feel empowered. Act.
We would do well to remember that, long after the masks are gone in the trash.