May 17, 2021

After a full year of staying home, social distancing, and keeping our faces covered, last week’s announcement from the CDC was the one many of us had been waiting for: fully vaccinated Americans were finally cleared to get back to normal. They “no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting,” the new guidelines said, “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations.”

And yet, according to Twitter, this was anything but good news.

“Sooo…how does one tell the difference between a fully vaccinated person and a not vaccinated person?” asked one viral tweet, while elsewhere, a chorus of “Too soon!” went up. Some people bemoaned that the guidance seemed not to consider the plight of parents with unvaccinated children, including NBC’s Kasie Hunt, who wrote, “[What] do I do with my child who’s too little for a mask now that these rules have changed and I have no idea if the people in, say, the grocery store are telling the truth about their vaccination status?”

Still another made an ominous, baffling prediction: “We will know who the real vaccinated people are – they will be wearing their masks. The unmasked will be the unvaccinated.”

Around the world, masks have taken on a symbolic meaning distinct from their function as a means of preventing the spread of disease — and also, crucially, a political one. But nowhere has the issue become more detached from reality, more partisan, than in America, where public health advice that should be celebrated — as a sign that the virus is finally on the way out — has been met with outrage.

Americans’ complicated relationship with masks dates to the beginning of the pandemic, when we were scolded that masks didn’t work and we shouldn’t buy them. Then came a twist: they did work, and we should! Then, it wasn’t just should, but must: mandates requiring the use of masks began to pop up across the States.

My own state, Connecticut, imposed one of the strictest of these: not only were masks required at all times, including outdoors, but residents would be fined if caught violating the order. (Failing to mask would cost you $100, while more serious offences, like attending or organising a gathering in excess of 25 people, could run as much as $500.)

Masks, we were told, were about protecting others from getting sick; if you wore one, you were engaged not only in good medical hygiene, but in a brand of performative compassion that has long been associated with the American political Left, and particularly with the anti-Trump resistance. Depending on where you live in the the States, walking down the street without a mask could earn you angry glares, even verbal scoldings; joggers in cities like New York and Washington D.C. may be accused of literally killing people if they don’t mask up.

Diligence seems to vary across regional, and also class, lines; virtually nobody in my own modest neighborhood wears a mask outdoors, but in swankier parts of town, virtually nobody goes out without one. (When I went hiking in a park adjacent to one of the wealthiest enclaves in Connecticut, a trio of well-dressed women carrying telescoping hiking poles made an elaborate show of yanking up their masks and tsk-tsking when I passed at a distance on an adjacent trail.) Meanwhile, friends who had moved to Florida texted the rest of us up North with bewilderment: by comparison, people in more relaxed (and redder) states were going about their business as though they’d forgotten the virus even existed.

This ramped-up relationship between compassion and progressivism can be traced to 2017, when debates were raging over Trump’s desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Caring about other people — while the orange narcissist in the Oval Office cared only for himself — became a crucial element of the way the progressive Left saw itself. There’s a reason why compassion played such a crucial role in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign: it validated the idea of him as the Anti-Trump. As Barack Obama said in a speech supporting his former VP: “Trump cares about feeding his ego. Joe cares about keeping you and your family safe.”

When the pandemic hit, it was this sentiment that fuelled the widely agreed-upon notion that whatever Donald Trump wanted to do, the right, morally correct, caring thing was to do the opposite. If Trump wanted to close the borders to travellers from China, we wanted to keep them open (and suggest that closing them was racist.) If Trump wanted to reopen schools, we wanted to keep them closed (and, yes, suggest that reopening them was racist.) A with-us-or-against-us mentality emerged, making dissent dangerous; as one parent confided to a reporter, “If we say anything about wanting our kids to return to school, we’re painted as Trumpers.”

And if Trump disliked pandemic safety measures like lockdowns, distancing, and, most especially, masks? Then we were all for these things. The more Trump or his supporters railed against them, the more we dug in. Masks were good. Masks were great. And most importantly, masks were political: a symbol of tribal affiliation that was literally all over your face. (Or, if you were on the other side, removed from it conspicuously and dramatically at the earliest possible moment.)

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In a country where many people define themselves first and foremost according to political identity, putting “THIS HOUSE BELIEVES” signs in their yards or a decal of Donald Trump’s head in their window, living in perpetual terror of their children marrying someone from the other team, what happened next was probably inevitable. Even as the U.S. began to roll out its vaccination program, and millions of Americans lined up to get their shots, those who had adopted the mask as a symbol of political and moral purity began expressing their intention to keep wearing them even after being vaccinated.

Even if the virus was no longer a threat, the argument went, the mask served other, equally important functions — and people began finding reasons to celebrate them. Wearing a mask even after you’d been vaccinated meant you were compassionate (“Other people don’t know that I’m vaccinated, and I care more about their emotional comfort than about having my face free!”), and health-conscious (“Masks prevent colds and flu, too!”) and even a good feminist (“Masking relieves me of the burden of the male gaze!”) And of course, it also meant you weren’t one of those people. The anti-maskers. The Trump voters. The bad ones, who believe bad things; the ones whose fault it was that we were even in this mess in the first place.

New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo pointed out the conundrum: “What if you are a good lib and don’t wear a mask outside because the media says it’s ok now because science,” he wrote, “but other libs despite science still associate masklessness with Trumpy defiance, is there a button you can wear, maybe a blue check or something, to show you’re good?”

When a writer at the libertarian magazine Reason expressed that continuing to mask outdoors even post-vaccination was nothing but theatre, author Mark Harris snapped, “If more people had engaged in performative acts of safety and fewer in performative acts of ‘freedom,’ maybe we wouldn’t be discussing exactly how the FOURTH WAVE is going.” And when Emily Oster, a Brown University economist who dispenses popular science-based advice on adjusting to pandemic life, suggested that the CDC adjust its messaging to emphasise that vaccination was our path back to normalcy, she was swiftly and immediately dogpiled: “‘Return to normal’ is a world that is still incredibly unsafe for so many people,” one outraged commenter wrote. “Why don’t you care about them? What would it take for you to find value in their lives?”

But it’s not just that many liberals are still wearing masks, even outdoors, purely to signal to random passersby that they aren’t Republicans. At the same time, to admit out loud that you don’t enjoy masking — or even that you look forward to removing your mask after you’ve been vaccinated — has become a bizarre third rail: how can you even talk about what’s comfortable when 500,000 people are dead?!

In some ways, the political posturing surrounding masks is reminiscent of the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, when questioning the necessity of, say, removing one’s shoes at the airport was seen as something akin to treason. The fact that a person was vastly more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than in a terrorist in-flight shoe bombing was compelling to no one; the fear of another attack (or in the case of Covid-19, another infectious wave) had dialled our risk tolerance down so close to zero that no precaution, no matter how disruptive to our daily lives, could be considered too much to ask. After all, what’s a little inconvenience in the name of fighting terrorism? Is your comfort more important than human lives?! Why do you hate America?

All of this might be dismissed as nothing more than the latest, dumbest skirmish in the culture wars, except that this one, unfortunately, is having wider repercussions on the landscape of public health. At this point, America’s best hope of returning to living, working, and socialising as we did before is to vaccinate as many people as possible — and to persuade hesitant parties that it’s in their best interest to get jabbed, because once they do, they can get back to normal.

But when vaccinated people won’t remove their masks, they send the opposite message: that getting the vaccine changes nothing. Combined with visuals like this one — in which Kamala Harris wears a mask on a Zoom callin a socially-distanced room where everyone present has been vaccinated — the impression being created by our political leadership and our media influencers is that the vaccines don’t work.

For a coalition that prides itself on caring about other people, the Left-wing pro-mask-even-after-vaccination folks are remarkably unconcerned that they might be discouraging their fellow Americans from participating in our most important life-saving public health measure. Instead, public responses to the vaccine-hesitant (including a video public service announcement that aired on the Jimmy Kimmel show) have been mainly centred on mocking them, an approach that does plenty to stoke existing tensions but very little to move us toward herd immunity.

Meanwhile, public health officials have struggled to explain to reluctant people why they ought to get jabbed, when doing so wouldn’t make any discernible improvement in their lives, and the vaccination rate in the States has been slowing lately, as supply begins to outstrip demand. The new CDC guidance may change this, assuming that America’s governors respond by lifting the mask mandates — but the update is already being met with hesitancy in places where many people have made overcautiousness into not just a virtue, but a lifestyle. Indeed, it is possible to envision a future in which normality is lost to us forever because the people who care were more invested in performing compassion for an audience of their tribesmen than practicing the real thing.

The real thing, though, is our only way forward.