New Yorkers defy advice and keep their masks on
Last weekend, I spotted something curious in my local park: hordes of New Yorkers wearing masks diligently 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 United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said those fully vaccinated could throw masks in any environment, as far as local laws allow. New York State then abandoned its mandate as a mask for the vaccinated in most public spaces.
Almost everyone I know above 16 is ‘double pricked’ and children over 12 also get injections, although New York City only says 49 percent of adults have had two hits 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.
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, like Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s, have abandoned mask warrants, although they can “request” that unvaccinated clients 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 made a informal survey of epidemiologists, only 5% predicted that 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 on the basis of research conducted in Asia around epidemics such as Sars, that wear a mask during a pandemic is beneficial not only because it can physically stop the movement of germs, but also because masks are a powerful ritual and social symbol.
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 the Trump era, wearing the mask also became a political symbol: because many Trump supporters refused to wear them, embracing the fabric seemed signal support for more progressive and liberal values.
Now, of course, the policy has changed; it is US President Joe Biden’s own CDC that has said the masks are not necessary. But the other psychological problems did not go away. Wearing a mask remains a gesture that reassures nervous people a little. It also looks like a pledge of respect towards the larger group, since it is 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 have been slow to adopt voluntary masks, such as the UK. And I dare say that the reluctance of New Yorkers to get rid of their masks will slowly fade as vaccination rates rise, more people do not wear masks – and summer temperatures make face coverings. stifling.
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 find it difficult to adopt masks because the practice was associated with collectivist societies, like those in parts of asia. I was wrong.
Second, I suspect that the reason New Yorkers initially adopted these masks, against all odds, reflected the fact that government messages conveyed not only a sense of shame at the disrespect, 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 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 to be learned here: if governments want to encourage people to behave better, for example regarding climate change, it helps to keep the message simple and, most importantly, to encourage people to behave better. feel empowered to act. We’d do well to remember that, long after the masks are gone in the trash.
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