When word came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated Americans can at last safely go without masks in most places, I felt like one of those holdout Japanese soldiers who spent years hiding in the caves of Guam: I was blinking in the sunlight, unable to believe that World War II had really ended.
“We feel naked,” first lady Jill Biden said after she arrived in West Virginia to promote Covid-19 vaccine distribution, taking off a mask matching her pink-and-white spring ensemble.
I know what she meant.
For more than a year now, we’ve had masks on our faces — or at the ready on our front-hall tables, in our glove compartments, or buttoned to our shirtfronts. I’ve grown as attached to mine as Linus van Pelt was to his blanket, and the thought of abandoning it is liberating but also unsettling. After all, that modest membrane might just have saved my life.
But in recent weeks, the science on masking has become clearer: Real-world studies have shown that fully vaccinated people have next to no chance of contracting the virus, even when they’re around unvaccinated people, and — just as importantly — equally little chance of being asymptomatic carriers who can pass it to others unwittingly.
That science, though, is now running up against what have become cultural norms in so many places. We’ve grown accustomed to our faces missing the bottom two-thirds — indoors and out — and to looking askance at others whose chins are bare. Suddenly the proper line between safe and unsafe will no longer be as plain as the noses on our faces, and the onus for separating the compliant from the resistant will fall squarely — and surely sometimes angrily — on a range of businesses, institutions, and other private entities, instead of being self-evident.
Already, authorities in mostly blue states and localities — like my own in Los Angeles — have announced that they will take their time and review the new CDC guidelines before revising their own mask regulations.
That’s fine with me. When we moved to Southern California from Washington seven years ago — to a neighborhood adjoining L.A.’s thriving Koreatown — I was taken aback, even a bit annoyed, by the number of people walking their dogs in surgical masks. “What on earth are they guarding against?” I thought to myself. Now I know. This winter’s unusually low number of routine flu cases seems proof enough of the effectiveness of masks in curbing the spread of airborne viruses of all kinds.
Don’t misunderstand: I don’t love wearing a mask. I need bifocals, and no matter what I’ve tried — surgical tape, pinching the metal nose-piece, even wearing the mask upside down — even the most form-fitting mask fogs my eyeglasses. They all play havoc with my facial recognition software. I can’t count the number of times I failed to recognize friends and neighbors by the whites of their eyes alone.
I do know many of those times were in the grocery store, my only regular haunt outside my own home all these past months. No matter the CDC guidance, I know there’s no way I intend to show disrespect for Judy and Lily, my trusted Gelson’s checkers and their brave colleagues in the United Food and Commercial Workers union. For the time being, I’ll keep a supply of clean masks handy in my car, right along with the reusable grocery bags and my customer rewards number.
In this milestone moment, it’s far from clear whether our Covid-era masks will become faded relics like the yellowing World War II ration books from my parents’ childhood, or the fallout shelter instructions from mine. Will they be souvenirs of a forgotten battle won, or seasonal necessities to be hauled out each winter flu season, along with sweaters, galoshes, and gloves? Too soon to say.
For now, perhaps, it’s enough just to be grateful for the privilege that the blinding achievements of science and the bittersweet sacrifices of millions have won us. As President Biden put it, “If you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you’ve earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: Greet others with a smile.”