Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its rules on face coverings, issuing new guidelines stating that vaccinated Americans can safely drop their masks when outdoors, except in certain crowded settings and venues.
Shortly after, President Joe Biden, who has been vaccinated, wore a mask as he made his way to an open-air podium outside the White House to announce the CDC guidelines, a seemingly (but not actually, per the guidelines) contradictory move that did not go unnoticed by many media outlets.
Meanwhile, officials across the country have been releasing their own new rules. A sampling: In Rhode Island, the Department of Health issued an outdoor mask reprieve for vaccinated residents. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker did not distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated when he told citizens they need only wear a mask outdoors if they can’t socially distance. Texas, of course, removed its statewide mask order – effective indoors or out, for those vaccinated or not – back in March; Alabama’s mandate expired in early April.
Is it any wonder Americans are confused – and, in some cases, choosing to continue wearing their masks in most situations, even after being made safe with a vaccination? Indeed, now that more than 100 million Americans have been fully vaccinated and businesses in many states are set to fully reopen – as things appear to be inching ever more quickly back toward the normal we used to know – many vaccinated people are clinging anxiously to their masks anyway. There are a number of understandable reasons for this, and some necessary steps for moving forward.
It has been a very long 14 months, and Americans have made countless adjustments to their lives under the ever-changing conditions of Covid-19. Many fully vaccinated people may not feel safe –physically, but also emotionally – taking their masks off. Masks, for many, have become an unquestionable part of safe daily life outside the house, if also an unavoidably political one. (As Politico put it – tongue in cheek – a year ago, “wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans.”)
In places where mask-wearing has separated friends and neighbors – which is most places – many are loathe to present as anti-vaxxers or, well, Republicans, and risk public rebuke from like-minded maskers. (At the same time, in some instances anti-maskers are harassing people for wearing masks, as in this striking incident of sign-waving protesters outside a Santa Monica, California, school this week. Be sure to click on the videos.)
And, to be sure, the national divide on mask wearing that began with former President Donald Trump’s downplaying the need to cover up, only deepened as states set rules that were literally all over the map. Republican controlled states, in general, were slower to adopt mask mandates and quicker to drop them; in Wisconsin, to wear or not to wear played out in court between a Democratic governor and his Republican-led legislature. (The state’s Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate early last month.)
But mask-wearing among the vaccinated isn’t purely politics and obstinacy. While it’s impossible on outward appearances to indicate your vaccinated status (unless you go around wearing your “I GOT MY COVID-19 VACCINE” sticker on your sleeve), wearing a mask is a clear way to state where you stand on the safety – the very survival – of your family and your community, and it has been a clear way to know where others stand, too.
That is key for many. Vaccination rates have slowed, and experts now saying it is unlikely the United States will reach widespread protection due to vaccine hesitancy and new variants. Some who are vaccinated complain that the people who are not will reap the benefits of the people who are, at least through the summer months – and that the unvaccinated may end up as carriers of variants, which could rear up once the weather turns cold again.
Which is to say: on top of fear of censure, there remains plenty of actual fear. Many may recall with some skepticism the CDC’s original directive stating that masks were necessary only for those who were sick or had symptoms; they may worry that they are guinea pigs for what happens under these relaxed guidelines.
It’s still unclear, for example, whether the vaccines will offer long-term protection, or how much they will protect against the variants. Uncertainty produces anxiety. For some, mask wearing may help them regain a sense of control.
The biggest obstacle to allowing people to feel they can drop the mask under CDC guidelines may be messaging and trust. Trust in our government organizations and leaders, and in each other – won’t return until that messaging problem is resolved.
Instead, any appearance of confusion or contradiction that even seems to be coming from the top will help keep the us-versus-them mentality alive, especially when there are pundits who will take any chance to make the Democratic administration look bad.
Vague rules are fodder for political dissension.
This is not to say that President Biden, or any leader, should be forced to go maskless. Every citizen –even a president – should be free to do as makes him or her comfortable under the guidelines backed by science. Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the President continues to wear a mask for “extra precaution,” and Biden himself has explained his practice as a “patriotic responsibility.”
But he must understand that in addition to keeping open the partisan rift his predecessor created, the risk in masking when not absolutely necessary is that it doesn’t exactly engender faith in the efficacy of the vaccine.
Of course, the “new normal” of Covid we’ve learned to live with didn’t happen in a day, and returning to the one we crave will take some time, too, no matter what our leaders signal to us about mask safety. The first step in getting there is to understand that uncertainty, dissension, disagreement – all of this is normal. We are all different. We all feel safe under different conditions.
For more than a year, masks have been standard operating procedure, and just as it was an adjustment to put them on, it will be one to take them off. On Twitter, NPR host David Greene likened going out without a mask to going out without pants. Most of us wouldn’t do that, no matter who told us it was safe. After all: What would the neighbors think?