By Alan Resnick / Detroit
Mask mandates for us Michiganders ended in June, 2021, along with all Covid-related capacity limits on public gatherings. Nonetheless, I’ve chosen to lay low during the last couple of years as the coronavirus ravaged my state. I couldn’t wait to get vaccinated, was boosted the first day of eligibility, and have been rocking a KN95 mask for the last six months whenever I go out in public. I can count on one hand the number of times my wife and I have eaten inside a restaurant. I can’t tell you what’s playing at our local movie theaters. It doesn’t matter. We don’t plan on going to either place.
Now millions of other Americans who have chosen or been required to wear masks in public places will be forced to make similar choices. The New York Times reported on Feb. 11 that a dozen states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia) have eased or eliminated mask requirements in public places this year.
Rules vary from state to state. New York, for example, announced on February 10 that its mask-or-vaccine mandate will be rescinded. The mandate required businesses to have their customers show proof of full vaccination or wear masks while indoors. However, there is a separate state requirement that masks be worn in schools. It remains in effect at least until March.
California has allowed its universal indoor mask mandate, established in mid-December of 2021, to expire, but it remains in effect for people who have not been vaccinated and in high-risk settings like schools and hospitals.
At the same time, however, states are allowing local governments and individual businesses to establish their own policies. New York City, for example, can still choose to require patrons of restaurants, gyms, or movie theaters to present proof of full vaccination. Businesses there can still ask for proof of vaccinations or require masks on from employees and customers.
And if the waters were not muddied enough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still is recommending that masks be worn in public places. In a published interview with Reuters on Feb. 8, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, was quoted as saying, “Now is not the moment” to rescind mandates.
I greatly respect both Drs. Walensky and Anthony Fauci, but I certainly don’t envy either of them. While they have been extremely transparent about what is known and unknown about Covid, they have labored to communicate effectively. Perhaps it’s because of the complexity of the subject matter or because positions must change as the knowledge base expands, but too many people perceive their statements as contradictory and therefore lacking credibility.
There are two dominant schools of thought regarding why so many state governors are loosening or eliminating mask mandates right now. One is that they are simply following the science, current CDC recommendations notwithstanding. While none of those governors have been foolish enough to don a white lab coat and proclaim, “Mission accomplished,” the fact is that Covid cases seem to have peaked. Moreover, the consensus scientific opinion is that the coronavirus will shift from pandemic to endemic. There simply is an increasing recognition that we’re going to be dealing with one strain or another for the indefinite future, just like influenza.
The second, more cynical explanation is that easing or eliminating mask restrictions now is a calculated, craven political decision. Of the 12 states mentioned previously, 11 have governors who are up for re-election this fall, and 10 of them are Democrats, even though some incumbents are term-limited. Striving for some return to normalcy just makes good political sense in an election year. My own opinion is that both science and politics are driving these decisions.
But all these recent state rollbacks have me ruminating. For one thing, it seems that the people I consider to be the bad guys are now winning the Covid war.
Cities and states initially offered all types of incentives to increase vaccination rates, everything from free doughnuts to free lap dances. And then there was the introduction of more punitive approaches, such as mask mandates or proof of vaccination requirements. But jab rates among adults have clearly topped out.
Everyone is exhausted from the sacrifices we’ve had to make during the last two years, whether voluntary or government/employer imposed. So I can certainly understand and appreciate the position of people like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who argues that we should simply go back to living our lives and say in effect to the unvaccinated: “It’s your choice, you live with the consequences.”
Eliminating mask mandates is consistent with this philosophy. But this move also seems to shift more of the risk to those of us who have played by the rules and followed the science.
Like the majority of Americans, I did everything in my control to help drive infection rates down. I got jabbed and re-jabbed, wore a mask religiously, kept my social distance, and only congregated with small groups of like-minded family and friends.
Allowing the unvaccinated to take off their masks puts me more at risk and increases my perceived need to remain masked. To my way of thinking, I’m having to pay the price for the dopes out there who are taking their medical advice from the Joe Rogans of the world.
At the same time, I constantly think about how much longer I want to keep my life on pause. What risks am I willing to assume to live a more normal, fulfilling life given that I’m 71 and in reasonably good health?
Some choices are no-brainers for me. I’ve had absolutely no problem going into stores since the pandemic began and will continue to mask up while at Kroger or Costco or the mall.
Since fall of 2021, my wife and I have been going to a series of pop concerts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But we hedged our bet by strategically deciding to attend Sunday matinees, which are far less crowded than weekend evening performances. Proof of vaccination or of a negative Covid test within 48 hours of the performance is required for admittance. And masks need to be worn throughout the show. We expect that the mandate will be dropped fairly soon and agree that we will still be comfortable attending with masks on, even if others choose not to.
Being semiretired, I’m comfortable adopting a similar midweek matinee strategy to get back into the movie theater. But I have no idea if such matinees still exist given the staffing shortages that continue to plague so many dining and entertainment venues.
Then there are more complex decisions. Mask mandates are in place for employees and customers at both of the organizations where I work part-time. I’m undecided about what to do if these mandates are eliminated. I would continue to wear a mask, but much of my work involves sitting face-to-face with a client across a desk for hours at a time. Doing it with a person’s uncovered face just a few feet away doesn’t appeal to me. Fortunately, I’m working to stay busy, not to keep a roof over my head, so the consequences of quitting are minimal. But there are many people who have to work and they will be soon be faced with a truly gut-wrenching choice.
My wife and I do not have any school-age children, but we do have four granddaughters. One is in pre-school. The three in K-12 have been vaccinated. All four are presently required to wear masks. But that’s changing at the end of this month, as our county is eliminating the requirement in public schools.
I have no idea if their parents will require them to continue to wear masks at school, but I’m sure hoping they will for the health of all concerned. I’d be far less comfortable being with my grandchildren knowing that they and their classmates were unmasked in class. And I’m not crazy about the idea of masking up or asking my grandkids to do so as a condition for seeing them. That seems like we are moving backwards to where we were a year ago, rather than forward.
Then there is travel. My wife and I have not been on a plane or in a hotel since 2019. There are so many destinations we’d like to visit while we are physically able to do so. I desperately want to personally experience the sights, sounds, and smells of places both new and old, not through videos or photographs.
We were scheduled to go on a river cruise to Amsterdam for tulip season in 2021, but it was cancelled. Right now, though, you couldn’t pay us to take a cruise anywhere. Being stuck in a cramped cabin for ten days because of a Covid outbreak is not my definition of a vacation. Similarly, I’d love to go back to Italy, but we’re not comfortable being out of the country in case of illness.
So we’re going on a tour of the national parks in the southwest in late summer. It’s the same tour we were supposed to go on in 2020 before it was cancelled. It will force both of us out of our comfort zone, as it requires flying, hotel stays, and traveling on a bus with a small group of strangers. Are there some risks? Absolutely. But do I want to be there in person to photograph a sunrise at Arches National Park or a sunset at Zion National Park? Absolutely. As the old saying goes, no guts, no glory.
So that’s my calculus today. It’s constantly being updated. I wish you the best of luck with yours.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.